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How Antioxidant-Rich Foods, Not Supplements, Lower the Risk of Alzheimer's

Two studies published in the June 26, 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association suggest that eating foods rich in antioxidants, particularly vitamin E and vitamin C, may substantially reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Antioxidant-rich foods—such as leafy greens, nuts and seeds, peppers, broccoli and other crucifers, apricots, strawberries and oranges—and not supplements, appear to offer the best protection.

Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disease that usually begins gradually in later life, causing a person to forget recent events or familiar tasks. Its rate of progression varies from person to person, but eventually, the disease leads to confusion, personality and behavior changes and impaired judgment. Communication becomes more difficult as the disease progresses, leaving those affected struggling to find words, finish thoughts or follow directions. Eventually, most people with Alzheimer’s disease become unable to care for themselves.

Today, 4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s: one in 10 people over 65 and nearly half of those over 85 suffer from the disease. Scientists fear that number could jump to 14 million by the year 2050 unless preventive actions are identified.

Although still are not certain why the disease develops, most researchers agree it's caused by a variety of factors.

Laboratory findings have suggested that damage inflicted by highly reactive oxygen molecules called free radicals is a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s disease, and lesions typical of exposure to these reactive oxygen species or ROS have been found in the brains of autopsied Alzheimer’s patients.

The antioxidants in many of the World’s Healthiest Foods have been shown to neutralize ROS, not only in the brain, but throughout the body. Plus previous research has suggested that vitamin E supplements may slow disease progression in people already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. So, researchers theorized that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s might be reduced in individuals with a high dietary intake of antioxidants.

Both new studies examined people who had not developed the mind-robbing disease at the studies' outset, and both suggest that antioxidant-rich foods, but not supplements, provide beneficial effects—although supplement use was somewhat uncommon and of comparatively short duration in both studies.

Of the two studies, one found strong protective effects from vitamin E-rich foods, while in the other, conclusive beneficial results were found from vitamin E and vitamin C-rich foods.

The first study, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging, involved 815 Chicago residents aged 65 and older who had no symptoms of mental decline when the study began. Participants were questioned about their eating habits and followed for 3.9 years.

During that time, 131 participants developed Alzheimer’s, which was diagnosed in 14.3% of those with the lowest intake of vitamin E-rich foods, compared with 5.9% of those with the highest intake. When factors such as age, education, sex, race, length of follow-up, and the presence of the APOE-4 genotype were taken into account, the group with the highest intake of vitamin E-rich foods was found to have a 70% lower risk of developing the disease. The protection afforded by vitamin E was observed only among persons who did not have the APOE-4 genotype, which is considered a highly significant biomarker of increased genetic susceptibility for Alzheimer’s disease.

In the second study, while the reduction in risk was not as dramatic, a variety of antioxidants were found to be protective—even among individuals with the APOE-4 genotype.

In this study, researchers in the Netherlands evaluated 5,395 participants who, at baseline (1990-1993), were at least 55 years of age and were free of dementia. Participants, who were reexamined in 1993-1994 and 1997-1999, were continuously monitored for dementia.

After 6 years of follow up, 197 participants developed dementia, among whom 146 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Even after adjustments were made for all variables the researchers thought might affect study results (including such things as alcohol intake, education, smoking, body mass index, total energy intake, presence of plaques in the carotid arteries which deliver blood to the brain, and the use of antioxidant supplements), the results still showed that a high intake of foods rich in antioxidants was associated with a significantly lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Averaging results for all participants, researchers found that individuals consuming the most vitamin C-rich and/or vitamin E-rich foods had an 18% lower risk for Alzheimer’s.

When only current smokers were evaluated, the protective benefits of antioxidant-rich foods were even more pronounced. Those smokers who consumed the most vitamin C-rich foods had a 35% lower risk, while smokers who ate the most vitamin E-rich foods had a 42% lower risk for Alzheimer’s. In addition, researchers also noted a 51% risk reduction for those smokers consuming the most foods rich in beta carotene, and a 46% risk reduction was seen among those smokers who consumed the most flavonoids.

Perhaps most encouraging, these positive associations among antioxidant-rich foods and reduction in Alzheimer’s risk were not diminished even in individuals with the apolipoprotein E genotype, which is considered a highly significant biomarker of increased susceptibility for Alzheimer’s disease.

Foods rich in the B vitamins folic acid, B12 and B6 may also be protective against Alzheimer’s—as reported in other recent studies covered in Healthy Food News. To read this story, click on Foods Rich in B Vitamins Protective against Alzheimer's and Cardiovascular Disease.

The World’s Healthiest Foods provide numerous sources of vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene and flavonoids. For in-depth information about any of these antioxidants, just click on their highlighted name.

According to the World’s Healthiest Foods’ stringent criteria for nutrient-density, the following foods rank as excellent sources of the antioxidants shown to be protective against Alzheimer’s in the studies discussed above. For a detailed write up of each of these foods including many quick and easy serving suggestions, just click on the name of the food in the lists below.

Excellent sources of vitamin E include: mustard greens, chard, sunflower seeds, and turnip greens. Very good sources include: broccoli, olives, kale, almonds, and papaya.

Excellent sources of vitamin C include: chili peppers, parsley, broccoli, bell pepper, strawberries, oranges, lemon juice, papaya, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, and brussels sprouts.

For some truly exceptional recipes featuring these antioxidant-rich members of the World's Healthiest Foods, click on the Recipe Assistant, select any of these foods on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing the food chosen will appear immediately below.

References:

  • Engelhart MJ, Geerlings MI, Ruitenberg A, van Swieten JC, Hofman A Witteman J, Breteler M. Dietary Intake of Antioxidants and Risk of Alzheimer Disease. JAMA, 2002 June 26;287(24):3223-3229.
  • Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, Tangney CC, Bennett DA, Aggarwal N, Wilson RS, Scherr PA. Dietary intake of antioxidant nutrients and the risk of incident Alzheimer disease in a biracial community study. JAMA 2002 Jun 26;287(24):3230-7. Alzheimer’s Association.

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