Aging is one of the natural causes of inflammation in the immune system. This inflammation gradually destroys body cells, thus slowing down both immune and cognitive responses. The growing population of the elderly, those aged 60 years and over, is likely to lead to a spike in dementia cases worldwide. While brain aging is common among the elderly, there are nutritional steps you can take to lower the risk of cognitive disorders such as dementia.
Different foods and drinks influence the rate of immune system inflammation differently. However, recent studies by the American Academy of Neurology revealed that people who stick to an anti-inflammatory diet comprising fruits, green vegetables, coffee, tea, and beans are less likely to develop dementia and other cognitive disorders later in their lives. These foods are rich in minerals and vitamins, essential in suppressing inflammation and protecting the body cells from damage. This piece explains the correlation between immune system inflammation and dementia and why an anti-inflammatory diet is the way to go.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a general term used to describe various symptoms associated with a broad spectrum of cognitive disorders. People with dementia exhibit memory loss, low attention span, loss of thinking and decision-making abilities. The two most common variations of dementia are Alzheimer’s and non-Alzheimer diseases.
People with the Alzheimer’s disease variant of dementia tend to have significant challenges in speech and perception. Those with non-Alzheimer variant display social and personality disorders such as lack of emotion, poor social interactions, low planning and coordination abilities.
In most patients, symptoms of dementia start slowly and gradually worsen over time if left untreated. With an early diagnosis, affected individuals can benefit significantly by taking treatment, which improves their quality of life.
Dementia arises due to damage or the brain cells either due to aging or through injury. Brain cell damage interferes with the brain’s ability to communicate with other body organs. As a result, reasoning, decision-making, and communication become compromised in patients with dementia.
The Link Between Inflammatory Diet and Dementia
The American Academy of Neurologists did a study on a Greek sample population to understand the relationship between inflammaging and neurological impairment such as dementia. For this study, the researchers picked a sample of 1059 individuals from the Greek population.
At the start of the study, none of the sampled individuals displayed any symptoms of dementia upon the first evaluation. Part of the research involved collecting a history of the patient’s diet habits on food consumption in the last month. The researchers used the dietary inflammation index (DII). This specialized tool assesses the level of inflammation arising from a person’s diet to understand the potential effects of an inflammatory diet on a patient’s cognitive health.
The DII tool tracks information on the main groups of food participants consumed during the study. Food groups tracked include cereals, dairy meals, fish, added fats, meat, legumes, fruits, groceries, alcohol, and stimulants.
The researchers split the participants into three primary groups based on the inflammatory degree in their diets.
- Group 1 comprised individuals with the least inflammatory diets with DII ranging between -5.83 and -1.76.
- Group 2 had dietary habits with mild inflammatory properties and had a DII score of between -1.76 and 0.21.
- The last group comprised individuals with the most inflammatory diets and whose DII scores ranged between 0.21 and 6.01.
On average, those with the lowest inflammatory diet consumed at least 20 fruit servings, 19 vegetable servings, four legume servings, and 11 tea or coffee servings a week. Participants with the highest inflammatory diet consumed nine fruit servings, ten vegetable servings, two legume servings, and nine tea or coffee servings per week.
Over the three-year study period, 62 out of the 1059 participants developed symptoms of dementia. A significant number of those who developed dementia followed a high inflammatory diet with a DII score of -0.06 or lower. The researchers discovered that every one-point increase in the DII score raised the risk of developing dementia by 21 percent. As a result, people who follow a high inflammatory diet are three times more likely to suffer from dementia than those who stick to anti-inflammatory diets.
How Diet Affects Cognitive Health
A person’s immune system response begins to slow down after the age of 40, a process known as inflammaging. The immune system responds to this threat by raising the production of pro-inflammatory mediators. These inflammatory mediators reduce brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels (BDNF) upon reaching the central nervous system. BDNF is responsible for supporting neuron growth and maintenance.
Inflammaging also raises oxidative stress levels, which in turn accelerate cell death. Apart from aging, an inflammatory diet also contributes to inflammaging. A diet rich in processed foods such as saturated fats and sugary drinks raises inflammation levels in the immune system. Additionally, the nutrient deficiencies in many fast foods erode an individual’s cognitive abilities over time, leading to slow thinking, memory loss, and impaired task coordination.
Anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes are particularly rich in essential vitamins and minerals. The nutrient composition in these foods is crucial in reducing the levels of inflammation in the human body. Furthermore, the high fiber and antioxidant content in these foods are essential in preventing inflammation and cell damage.