Ask the Pharmacist

Q) I caught the tail end of a new study about preventing Alzheimer’s (AZ) the other day on the news. Can you fill me in on what I missed?

A) There was a study published in Neurology that showed an intervention that any of us can do easily and inexpensively that might significantly reduce our risk of ever developing Alzheimer’s. The bad news for most of us is that it does not come in a “pill” but instead involves eating better, a fact that most of us probably already suspected but still manage to ignore come meal time anyways. This study is all about prevention and unfortunately does not provide much information or comfort to those already diagnosed.

When it comes to AZ or other forms of dementia, the time to act is well before a diagnosis has been made. Still the study’s results are startling in their significance and build upon previous research increasing the likelihood that specific dietary changes really can make a substantial impact.

The study was conducted on 921 seniors (the average age of the participants was 81) living in the Chicago area and was initiated in 1997. The majority were female (75%) and all were free from any signs of dementia when the trial commenced. Over the next 6 years the participants were closely followed and asked numerous questions regarding their diet, exercise levels and health status.

At the end of the period, researchers found an association between those who consumed the most flavinols (in particular kaempferol, isorhamnetin and myricetin) in their diet with a reduction in their risk of being diagnosed with AZ. In fact, it was found that those seniors who had the highest levels in their bodies were a staggering 48% less likely to have AZ than those with the lowest levels.

Flavenols are one of the many groups of chemicals that make up the flavinoids which are in turn part of larger group of chemicals known as phytonutrients (or plant chemicals). Flavinoids are found in almost all fruits and vegetables and there are more than 6,000 different types. Scientists have long suspected that these chemicals are at least in part responsible for the health benefits associated with diets that are rich in fruits and vegetables. This is because these chemicals are potent antioxidants that exhibit both anti-inflammatory and immune system boosting effects.

Different fruits and vegetables contain varying amounts of many of these different flavinoids but the three noted in this study can be found in abundance in foods such as kale, spinach, beans, apples, olive oil, tea, broccoli and wine. It should also be noted that the word diet here is key. Supplements that might contain these flavenols or “green type powders” have no evidence to support whether they will be of any benefit and while they are unlikely to harm anyone studies have consistently found that supplements are a poor substitute for the real food.

Now one of the challenges with a study such as this is that we can only prove that there is an association between eating foods such as these and a lower risk of AZ rather than causation. In order to see if perhaps this reduced risk might be due to another factor, researchers were able to show that these results held true regardless of the amount of exercise the participants engaged in, how actively they tried to use their brains or how educated they were. Researchers were also able to show that whether or not the participants had been diagnosed with other diseases such as diabetes or heart disease, the diets that were high in flavenols still seemed to lead to better brain outcomes.

This is not to say conclusively that these benefits could not be due to another key difference among the patients that the researchers failed to rule out or that these results might be due to another chemical other than the three mentioned. Regardless, given the lack of good prescription drugs for treating this disorder, it appears that doing the “little things” such as diets like this (for further benefits look up the MIND diet on the internet as well) and exercise still appear to be the most beneficial interventions an individual can do to lower their risk of one day hearing that awful diagnosis. For more information about this or any other health related news, contact your pharmacist.