Un-sweetening the Truth: The Sugar Connection to Alzheimer's Disease
Experts believe Alzheimer’s is caused by damage from a buildup of particular proteins (amyloid plaques and tau tangles) within and between nerve cells or neurons in the brain. This results in a range of symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, apathy, personality changes, and difficulty with everyday tasks. As the disease progresses, the effects on thinking skills become increasingly pronounced and vary from person to person.
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. As the disease advances and more brain cells become affected, there is also a decrease in neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) involved in sending messages and signals between brain cells, reducing a person's ability to look after themselves or do their usual activities. They require increasing levels of care and support, making it a significant challenge for the person and their caregivers.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but some treatments and interventions can help reduce symptoms, especially in the early stages. Research into Alzheimer's continues to explore potential treatments and prevention strategies.
Some researchers are working to find better treatments, others are exploring the risk factors and others are looking to see if diet and lifestyle play a part in its development and the speed of it’s progression. In my role as a Nutritional Therapist and as a type one diabetic I am particularly interested in this disease.
Alzheimer’s and Nutrition
Scientists continuously research and find new links between nutrients, dietary patterns, and dementia. A review of 38 studies published this year (2023) investigated the link between nutrition and Alzheimer’s disease.
The authors concluded that following a diet high in sugar and ultra-processed foods was a risk factor for developing this form of dementia. One of the areas they looked at was blood sugar and protein build-up in the brain. They concluded that a high sugar diet and a gene called APOE-e4 (a gene that some people have which increases their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease). Previous research has shown a link between type two diabetes and the APOE-e4 gene, too.
The studies show that high sugar/glycaemic foods were not the only risk factor. They also concluded that foods high in saturated fat and other unhealthy ingredients increased the risk factor.
The quantity of ultra-processed food is key. The occasional ultra-processed meal is unlikely to increase your risk but that weekly or more frequent high-carb/saturated fat takeaway may. You will also find many ultra-processed foods in the supermarket. Put that together with sugary snacks, etc., and you can see how it is easy to put yourself at risk.
This research also found that eliminating ultra-processed and high-sugar foods and replacing them with minimally processed foods was associated with a lower risk of dementia.
While the puzzle pieces are falling into place, much larger studies are required to investigate further and validate the results. Additionally, it's crucial to remember that everyone is unique; a dietary pattern that protects one person from Alzheimer’s may not offer the same level of protection to another.
Changing your diet and lifestyle at any stage is beneficial, so don’t think ‘the damage is done’. So, what can you do right now?
When a new client comes to me, I first look at their diet, lifestyle, stress level, sleep, medical and family history (risk factors) and symptoms (if any). We can’t do anything about our family and our own medical history, but we can do our best to reduce the risk of many health problems in the future. As well as previous knowledge on this subject, I reviewed the two pieces of research linked below.(1)(2)
Basic improvements anyone can make include reducing high sugar and highly processed foods and replacing them with lean protein, lots of vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats. Even drinking enough water improves general health. It will likely increase your energy and motivation to eat healthier foods because dehydration causes tiredness and brain fog.
The good news is that making changes to your diet, stress reduction, and regular exercise improve a whole range of things including blood sugar balance, cardiovascular health, energy, and mood, reduce PMT and menopause symptoms, and reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Why not book a free 20-minute mini-consultation to see if working with me could help you make those all-important changes?
Xu Lou, I., Ali, K. and Chen, Q. (2023) ‘Effect of nutrition in alzheimer’s disease: A systematic review’, Frontiers in Neuroscience, 17. doi:10.3389/fnins.2023.1147177.
‘2023 alzheimer’s disease facts and figures’ (2023) Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 19(4), pp. 1598–1695. doi:10.1002/alz.13016.