Recent trends show that Alzheimer’s disease is affecting women more than men. We asked Atrium Health experts about the role diet and lifestyle might play in this trend.

Your Health, Women's Health | 3 years ago

Do Women Face a Greater Risk of Developing Alzheimer's?

Recent trends show that Alzheimer’s disease is affecting women more than men. We asked Atrium Health experts about the role diet and lifestyle might play in this trend.

Alzheimer’s disease affects more and more people every year, with doctors predicting the population of affected individuals to triple by 2050. Within this trend, two out of every three people diagnosed are women.

While genetic factors play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, we wanted to get professional insight into the steps one can take to reduce their risk of developing this disease. Oleg Tcheremissine, MD, psychiatrist and clinical investigator at Atrium Health and Renee Deerson, MEd, RD, LDN, director of clinical nutrition services at Atrium Health, spoke to us about the link between diet and Alzheimer’s disease, and what women can do to improve brain health.

Diagnoses on the rise among women

One factor experts have considered is estrogen — a crucial sex hormone found in much higher concentrations among women compared to men. While there have been studies around this hormone and its relationship to Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Tcheremissine tells us that these research studies linking the two have been inconclusive.

“There are many factors when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Dr. Tcheremissine. “It progresses differently among different patients and affects multiple parts of the body. That’s why we can’t claim that there is one cause, such as estrogen, that is responsible for the disease.” Dr. Tcheremissine also reminds us that women are more likely than men to develop Alzheimer’s dementia in in their lifetimes. Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer's are women. One of the main reasons for the greater prevalence of dementia among women is the longer life expectancy of women.

Food and your brain

While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are steps one can take to hopefully reduce the risk of the disease, especially if you have a family history.

One place to start is in your diet. “Foods that prevent cell damage and promote blood flow to the brain are healthy for the brain,” says Deerson. “This includes foods high in fiber, high in antioxidants, and low in saturated fat.” Overall, foods that are good for your cardiovascular health also tend to be good for the brain. This includes fruits and vegetables — especially antioxidant-rich fruits like blueberries. Green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach are also healthy. “Nuts are also a good choice,” says Deerson. “They’re full of fiber and contain healthy omega-3 fats.”

Foods to avoid

While fruits, vegetables, and nuts are all worth putting on the menu, what foods do we want to avoid?

“Avoid a high intake of red meat,” says Deerson. “Less than four times a month is probably ideal. You’ll also want to lower your intake of high-fat dairy products like cheese.”

Brain-healthy diets

When it comes to a brain-healthy diet, some doctors recommend the cleverly named “MIND diet.” The M in that fitting abbreviation stands for Mediterranean — a type of diet that is growing in popularity around the world. This diet puts an emphasis on plant-based foods and cuts down on sugar and saturated fats. This means plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes, and nuts.”

“The great thing about the Mediterranean diet is that it’s practical,” explains Deerson. “For someone who is struggling with their eating habits, it’s not too overwhelming to simply lower your sodium and sugar intake while still being able to eat plenty of delicious foods.”

Other lifestyle factors

Food isn’t the only thing to keep in mind when it comes to Alzheimer’s prevention. Exercise also plays a role. Dr. Tcheremissine states that aerobic exercises, even in small amounts, can help prevent cognitive decline and promote an overall improvement in health. For women who are older, gentle exercise such as water aerobics is particularly effective and gentle on the joints. Even stress reduction can help with prevention, as it helps lower inflammation in the brain.

Overall, healthy habits are key. The same eating and exercise habits that promote heart health can also keep your brain healthy. Although genetic factors play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, taking preventative steps is important. And for women who tend to live longer and therefore have a higher risk of getting the disease, it’s never too early to start developing healthy habits.