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22nd August 2016

Plaques and Tangles – Alzheimer’s Disease

A key feature of Alzheimer’s disease is an excessive build-up of two culprit proteins in the brain; proteins called amyloid and tau. Amyloid makes sticky plaques in the brain; tau forms tangles and as the disease progresses and these build up, nerve cells are damaged. These nerve cells are enormously important - we have a staggering 90 billion nerve cells in our brains. The loss of nerve cells leads to symptoms such as memory loss and confusion as the brain becomes unable to function in its usual way.

Can Nutrition Reduce the Build-up of Plaques and Tangles in the Brain?

So it’s important for researchers to look at whether they can find ways to reduce the build up of these proteins, and, from a nutrition point of view, whether what we eat can have any effect on this. A new study by researchers at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior has found that a healthy diet, regular physical activity and a normal body mass index (indicating a healthy weight) can reduce the incidence of the protein build ups associated with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

In the small study, 44 adults ranging in age from 40 to 85 (mean age: 62.6) with mild memory changes but no dementia underwent an experimental type of brain PET scan (positron emission tomography) to measure the level of plaque and tangles in the brain. Researchers also collected information on the participants' body mass index, levels of physical activity and diet.

Lifestyle Factor including Diet and Weight are Associated with Fewer Plaques and Tangles

The study found that individual lifestyle factors such as - a healthy body mass index, physical activity and a Mediterranean diet, were linked to lower levels of plaques and tangles on the brain scans. This is significant, as although we know there is an association between healthy lifestyles including diet and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, the mechanisms are unclear. Studies like this indicate there may be influence of lifestyle at a molecular level before the beginning of serious memory problems.

Making your Menu more Mediterranean

This is a small study with a number of limitations, but it does add support to the need for maintenance of normal body weight, regular physical activity, and a healthy diet to protect the brain during aging. To make your diet or that of your service users more ‘Mediterranean’ you can:

  • increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables
  • increase the consumption of whole grains and pulses (beans, peas and lentils)
  • increase the consumption of fish
  • choose fats for cooking made from vegetable and plant oils, such as olive oil

 

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Science Manager, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all.

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