Sunday, March 6, 2016

Foods and Dementia

Who wants dementia? I think nearly everyone would rather have their mental faculties mostly intact than muddle about in an impaired state. The prospect of the golden years seems less wonderful if you won't be able to find your shoes or remember your children's names once you attain them.

As a result, the news outlets are quick to tell us about the new superfoods that are linked with lower risk of cognitive decline. Because we really want to know!

What are the frequently-mentioned foods at present that are purported to be good for our brain health?
- Leafy green vegetables
- Apples
- Colorful fruits and vegetables overall
- Nuts (even peanuts)
- Salmon and other cold-water fish
- Berries and dark-skinned fruits
- Coffee & tea
- A low-to-moderate amount of red wine
- Chocolate
- Virgin olive and coconut oils
- Many spices, including chile peppers, turmeric, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon
- And, of course, though it's not diet advice, exercise regularly and don't smoke.

Pretty basic, except for the tea, coffee, and red wine. What are they doing on that list, asks the typical Latter-day Saint. We're supposed to avoid them under the LDS Word of Wisdom, a revelation given to Joseph Smith on how to keep ourselves healthy. Even a couple glasses of wine can impair a smaller driver, and all sorts of personal problems result from alcohol abuse; moreover, frequent alcohol consumption is clearly correlated with an increased risk of dementia while abstaining from alcohol does not carry a significant greater risk of dementia over the long run. Coffee and tea are fairly obvious for Mormons, in that the constant sipping of beverages with a lot of caffeine can deaden us to quiet inspiration, and habituation to substances just seems like a bad idea in general. Why would drinks that we're supposed to avoid have important health benefits correlated with them?

My opinion is that there are other ways to get those benefits, and we just need to wait for the scientific research to get to the point where it can tell us for certain how to do so. After all, it took a long while for scientists to conclude that tobacco really was causing an increase in lung cancer.

I was quite interested to come across a theory out of Italy recently. Surely, as the home of the Mediterranean diet, they'd be likely to come up first with an explanation as to why their food keeps them so healthy! The gist of it is that DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid found in fatty, cold-water fish) and salicylic acid (acetyl salicylic acid is aspirin) work together to protect the brain cells and synapses. Salicylic acid, or salicylates, are high in almost every specific food and drink* listed above. Many of these foods are also known for containing polyphenols, but that's been a hard category of substances to nail down as to concrete health benefits. Willow bark--which contains a precursor to aspirin--has been in use for treating aches and fever since the time of ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, so we've been learning about its benefits and drawbacks for a long time. What if, instead of taking baby aspirin, we should just be eating and drinking a high salicylate diet (well, except for those that are sensitive to it)? In that case, I can drink fruit juices like apple cider and orange juice and sip herbal teas, and I'll still drink plenty of salicylates. If I add in some fish, then I'm protecting my brain!

Time will tell what science finds out. In the meantime, I'm more than comfortable following the Word of Wisdom. It has a lot of good counsel about what to eat and drink (it's not just a list of prohibitions), the specifics of which are finding wide support from nutritional science.

* Sorry, chocolate, you're not on the salicylate list. But you definitely help with cognitive function, at least short-term.

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