Currently, more than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, a devastating illness characterized by loss of memory and cognitive decline. And the rate of Alzheimer’s in the United States is projected to increase by 50 percent from 2018 levels by 2038.
This dreary prediction inspired scientists William Grant and Steven Blake to examine how what we eat affects Alzheimer’s risk.
It turns out that diet plays an important role in how our mind and body age, particularly the consumption of meat, according to new comprehensive research Grant and Blake published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
“Grant and Blake effectively synthesize a wide array of evidence, reinforcing that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains, while limiting red meat, saturated fats, and ultra-processed foods, correlates with a reduced Alzheimer’s risk,” Edward Giovannucci, MD, ScD, a professor from Harvard University who analyzed the research, said in a statement.
“The dietary and lifestyle patterns linked to heightened Alzheimer’s risk are intricately connected to a range of mechanisms including inflammation, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress,” Giovannucci said.
“The dietary and lifestyle elements associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers might similarly influence Alzheimer’s disease risk.”
The ways eating meat is aging you
So what are these “dietary elements?” Grant and Blake’s look at a broad swath of global ecological studies pointed out specific ways in which consuming a Western diet—which is characterized by high meat intake, along with eating highly processed foods and high amounts of saturated fat—is associated with a decline in mental and physical well-being.
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From their findings, here are 10 ways that eating meat—“the most important risk factor for Alzheimer’s,” according to the researchers—ages your mind and body:
- Accelerated cognitive decline: The study emphasizes that diets high in meat, especially red and processed types, are significantly linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, contributing to neuroinflammation and cognitive deterioration.
- Obesity and brain health: Linking obesity to Alzheimer’s, the study shows the calorie-dense nature of meat as a contributor to weight gain and associated health complications.
“Physical inactivity and obesity also contribute to higher risk,” Giovannucci added.
- Inflammation and insulin resistance: Meat-heavy diets induce systemic inflammation and insulin resistance, critical in Alzheimer’s pathology. Saturated fats in meat disrupt insulin function and promote inflammation, which is linked to brain aging.
- Oxidative stress: Consuming meat increases oxidative stress within the body, accelerating aging and linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
- Homocysteine levels: High levels of homocysteine, influenced by meat consumption, are a risk factor for Alzheimer’s, adversely affecting brain health.
- Advanced glycation end products (AGEs): Cooking meat at high temperatures creates AGEs, linked to aging and chronic diseases, and are implicated in Alzheimer’s development.
- TMAO production: Meat consumption elevates Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) levels, associated with heart disease and potentially brain health.
- Cardiovascular health risks: Processed and red meat consumption is a known risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, which exacerbate brain aging and the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
- Imbalanced diet: A diet high in meat often means a lower intake of neuroprotective foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, depriving the body of antioxidants and other compounds essential for brain health.
- Environmental concerns: The study addresses broader implications of meat consumption, including its environmental impact which creates a public health issue for all.
According to Paul Marik, MD, Chairman and Co-Founder, Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC), the insights gained from this research are critical in mitigating the risk of Alzheimer’s.
“Apart from the particular type of diet, they demonstrate that the consumption of red meat, insulin resistance, obesity, reactive oxygen species, and oxidative stress, phytochemicals, and homocysteine amongst other factors interact with neuroinflammation and play a major role in the aetiology of Alzheimer’s,” Marik said.
“This treatise provides an excellent overview of modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s,” Marik said.
A plant-based diet for brain and body health
Conversely, a plant-based diet continues to be linked to slower cognitive decline and improved physical well-being as we age. Grant and Blake advocate for a shift towards plant-based diets, highlighting the benefits of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and promoting overall health. Such diets not only offer protective nutrients but also help mitigate the adverse effects of meat consumption on the body and mind.
This aligns with many researchers who agree that embracing a plant-based diet, especially during crucial periods like midlife, is beneficial for slowing cognitive decline and maintaining overall physical well-being.
One study, published earlier this year by NYU Grossman School of Medicine, emphasizes that women following a diet rich in plant-based foods during middle age have a significantly lower risk of experiencing cognitive decline later in life. This is a critical finding, considering that women are disproportionately affected by Alzheimer’s.
The evidence extends beyond just one demographic or life stage. Recent research from Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Rush University Memory and Aging Project (RUMAP) further reinforces the importance of antioxidants found in plant-based foods for cognitive health. These studies collectively suggest that diets rich in colorful fruits and vegetables can significantly reduce the risk of developing cognitive disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.