Like everyone else, people with Alzheimer’s disease feel their best when they consistently eat healthy, nutritious meals. While there is no special diet for Alzheimer’s, proper nutrition and hydration can improve behavioral symptoms and help prevent weight loss.
Eating becomes more difficult for people with Alzheimer’s as the disease progresses. Visual changes, declining physical function, distractibility, and loss of appetite can make mealtimes challenging. By following certain guidelines, caregivers can help keep food appealing and ensure as much independence as possible.
What does it involve?
A nutritious diet for someone with Alzheimer’s disease is the same as a healthy diet for other people. In general, focus your diet on fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, legumes, fish, low-fat dairy products, and sources of healthy unsaturated fats such as nuts.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, including Vitamin C. Antioxidants are nutrients that may help reduce inflammation. Foods such as cantaloupe, citrus, tomatoes, broccoli, mango, pineapple and berries are especially rich in Vitamin C. Fresh produce is also often high in fiber, vitamins and minerals and lower in calories. Eat as many vegetables as possible, and eat fruit in balance with other carbohydrates.
Some types of fat raise cholesterol and may contribute to inflammation, while other types may help reduce inflammation. Researchers have tied saturated fats to increased inflammation. Saturated fats come from high-fat animal products (including full-fat dairy), fried foods, and baked goods made with tropical oils. Reduce your saturated fat intake by limiting your consumption of foods such as fatty beef, pork, chicken with skin, lard, cream, butter, cheese, full-fat or 2 percent milk or yogurt. Instead, choose skim milk, fat-free yogurt, and skin-free chicken or fish.
Conversely, the type of fat found in walnuts, pecans, flaxseed, canola and olive oil, and fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, lake trout and sardines may help fight inflammation as well as heart disease. These foods are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Dietary fiber keeps your heart healthy and your bowels working properly. You can eat more high-fiber foods including vegetables, dried or fresh fruits, legumes such as peas or beans, some nuts including almonds and pistachios, and whole-grain products. Making the switch from white bread to whole-grain, from white rice to brown rice, or from regular pasta to whole-grain pasta will also add fiber to your diet. Always check labels to make sure products are whole-grain.
People with Alzheimer’s often forget to drink water and can easily become dehydrated. Some people with Alzheimer’s have trouble swallowing. Dehydration can contribute to memory and behavioral problems and cause fatigue, headache, and constipation. Offer water, juice, or other beverages frequently throughout the day. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol, which can contribute to dehydration. Alternately, moist snacks like popsicles, pudding, soup, or fruit can help provide hydration.
Alzheimer’s causes confusion, distractibility, and changes to visual and spatial recognition. Limit food choices to two or three items to avoid confusion, or serve one food at a time. Serve meals in a quiet room without a television or other noisy distractions. Eat meals together to make dining an enjoyable social activity. Avoid patterned plates and tablecloths to make sure food is easily distinguishable from its background. If using utensils becomes a challenge, serve easy-to-eat finger foods that encourage independence.
Loss of appetite could be due to a change in medication dosage, ill-fitting dentures, or trouble recognizing, smelling, or tasting foods. Ask the doctor whether loss of appetite could be a symptom of medication, and find out whether lowering the dosage might help. Attend regular dentist appointments and make sure that dentures fit comfortably. Be flexible about what foods you serve, respect food preferences, and remember that tastes can change as Alzheimer’s progresses.
Good nutrition can help those with Alzheimer’s feel their best. Eating healthy food and staying hydrated can help improve behavioral problems and avoid additional symptoms. Taking Alzheimer’s symptoms into consideration when preparing and serving food can encourage healthy eating and good mealtime habits.
In a study published in 2005, 571 people with Alzheimer’s were evaluated based on nutritional status and cognitive and behavioral states. At the end of one year, the participants who were most malnourished were found to have significantly lower cognitive and behavioral status.
Side effects of some Alzheimer’s medications, which can include loss of appetite, nausea, and upset stomach, may make it difficult to eat regular meals or focus on a healthy diet.
Cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s can make it difficult to remember to drink enough and eat on a regular schedule.
Alzheimer’s symptoms such as confusion, distractibility, and declining visual and spatial recognition and physical function can make it difficult to eat meals.