Preventing Strokes, Dementia and Alzheimer’s

November 6, 2012 in Food and the Brain, Health, Mediterranean, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

The cover story of the November 2012 issue of the Nutrition Action Healthletter (NAH) by the Center for Science and the Public Interest is devoted to protecting your brain from stroke. It’s a comprehensive (six and a half pages long) yet condensed collection of information about signs and prevention of stroke (essentially a heart attack in your brain). This comprehensive prevention advice includes TIAs (transient ischemic attacks) as well as strokes.  TIA’s are one of the greatest predictors of a true stroke. This issue contains a step-by-step evaluation of stroke risk for both men and women. Because it aligns closely to the advice we give in this website, I especially enjoy the sections about what to eat and what works and doesn’t work. The article is not yet available for free, but you may be able buy it from NAH; read it at your library; or you can subscribe to NAH.

Although there are new revolutionary treatments for ischemic strokes, you have to get to the hospital within a very short window of time to benefit – stroke victims often wait too long. The point is to learn the signs of stroke, pay attention and call 911. There are promising new treatments, including “tissue-plasminogen activation (tPA)”, but you have to get to the hospital fast in order to use them.  To fail to do so is to greatly increase the risk of suffering the horrible effects of stroke (both short term and long term). These include Dementia, Alzheimer’s, partial paralysis, loss of speech, loss of emotional response, and many other tragic outcomes. The NAH quotes Norm Campbell M.D., a professor of Medicine at the University of Calgary and leader of several organizations relating to hypertension and stroke. Campbell says, that just getting people to act when they see warning signs, or coming up with better treatments for strokes is what he calls a: “waiting-for-a-stroke program.” He continues, “Society needs to be more proactive to prevent strokes from occurring in the first place. We know how.” Essentially, as promising as the new treatments are, Campbell is telling us where it’s at: Prevention, Prevention, Prevention.

One of the fascinating facts discussed in the NAH article is that Campbell says that silent strokes (TIAs) are probably a precursor of dementia. Brain cells die with each TIA and as the burden of silent strokes increase it results in cognitive impairment. The journal Stroke reported in 2011 that scientists are no longer distinguishing between Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia; it appears that pure Alzheimer’s or pure vascular dementia is rare. “Most people have at lease some components of both.”

If you want to avoid a stroke, big or small, then maintain a healthy blood pressure; don’t smoke; lose excess weight; trim your sodium consumption; exercise; eat a diet high in fruits; vegetable; nuts; soy; legumes; whole grains; fish; poultry; and low in red meat; saturated and trans fats; and limit alcohol intake. These are, of course, all related to following a healthy lifestyle that reduces risk by about 80% of having a first stroke. Did you catch that number? An eighty percent reduction in risk is certainly worth the effort that you’d have to put in to make your lifestyle healthier.

In another article, one published by Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition science and Policy – Health & Nutrition Letter called: Mediterranean Diet May Protect Brain’s Small Blood Vessels suggests the same type of diet as the NAH article. (Note: NAH did a terrific job in illustrating how much of each food type – don’t miss the eleven servings of fruits and vegetables combined.) Certainly it is no coincidence that the diet is essentially the same in both publications. From many sources, including this web site, it has been well established that the Mediterranean-style of eating has been linked to lower risks of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and stroke.  Now evidence for its benefits to brain health is mounting. You can read the entire Tufts article at the link above. It includes a sub-article called Overeating May Increase Risk of Memory Loss. I especially appreciate the quote of Dr. Yonas E. Geda, M.D. of the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.  She said, “What’s good for your heart is good for your brain.”

It seems so clear, but the public often looks for a diet to prevent diabetes, and a different one to prevent heart disease, and yet a different one to prevent Alzheimer’s. It will be like a light bulb going off in your brain, when you realize that eating a Mediterranean-style diet, exercising, and adopting other healthy lifestyle behaviors will keep the ‘whole you’ healthy. It’s one of my favorite discoveries in public health; one healthy lifestyle can decrease your risk for a host of problems.

When we think about eating like an American we often think of burgers and fries (of course with that nice white fluffy bun); a big pizza loaded with sausage and lots of cheese; a nice thick steak and baked potato topped with butter and sour cream; southern-fried chicken and whipped potatoes; or maybe some nice white flour macaroni loaded with cheese. But the fact is that some of us are no longer eating this way. Some of the foods went off the menu list when we stopped having lots of cheese, white flour, saturated and trans fat, red meat, and processed meat. Reducing the risk of horrific problems is worth the sacrifice of old habits.

Eating like an American doesn’t always need to be spelled – heart attack; stroke, dementia, diabetes; we can learn to gradually but systematically adopt our own version of a yummy Mediterranean eating and life-style program. It takes work, but what’s your healthy brain worth?