For decades, people considered memory lapses as inevitable signs of aging. But according to Dr. Neal Barnard, author of 15 books on diet and health, people have a greater role in what happens to their memories because it’s connected to the foods they eat.
The widely known nutrition researcher will discuss the effects food has on memory, ranging from day-to-day lapses to more severe problems, in a 7 p.m. Tuesday visit at the University of Toledo Health Science Campus, the former Medical College of Ohio.
“I should tell you I know that not only as a physician, but all four of my grandparents became severely demented, and my father suffered from severe dementia for many years,” he said during a telephone interview last week.
“Nearly half of Americans develop dementia by age 85,” said the adjunct associate professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and the author of Power Foods for the Brain — An Effective 3-step Plan to Protect Your Mind and Strengthen your Memory. “We have put up with it because we didn’t know what to do about it. [But] we can take action now and spare our families and ourselves a lot of misery down the line.”
The founding president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said there are foods that are good — those that are plant-based — and foods that are not good for the brain. His views are based on research studies, which he discusses in his book. In one of them, the Chicago Health and Aging Project that began in 1993, researchers published a report in 2003 that revealed that study participants’ whose diets consisted of saturated and trans fats had a significant risk of Alzheimer’s, while the risk of Alzheimer’s in people who avoided those fats was down by 80 percent or more, Dr. Barnard said.
He also said that vegan and vegetarian diets dropped the risks of having an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Scientists know, too, that the vitamins in nuts, seeds, and many vegetables reduce the risk of such a diagnosis by 25 percent to 70 percent, he added.
“So the take-home message here was to add something: walnuts, pecans, almonds, sunflower, and sesame seeds. About an ounce a day on a salad, and you get a lot of protections,” he said. “Other foods that have benefits are green, leafy vegetables, beans, bananas, and blueberries. Each has a protective trait that protects the brain.”
And of course, exercise is vital, as it “gets the brain the oxygen that’s needed,” he said.
The cost of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can be as much as $70,000 a year, Dr. Barnard said.
“Anything you can do to reduce that toll even slightly, you would save a fortune. I think we can prevent 70 percent to 80 percent of it; it will require making changes,” he said. “Am I asking kids to take the meat off their plates and to not give kids pizza and cheese? That’s the direction we have to go, and if not, we will not win.”
While whole and fresh food stores are growing in popularity, they are not always easily accessible or affordable for low-income families. But he said for anyone wanting to follow his diet, that shouldn’t be an issue.
“Dried beans and frozen broccoli, that is not expensive,” Dr. Barnard said. “If people follow the diet I suggest, their food costs will not be as expensive.”
But how does he persuade people that removing the “bad” foods that they have become accustomed to eating is better for their brain and overall health?
“Everybody balks at change,” Dr. Barnard said, pointing out that a generation ago the hot issue was tobacco smoke and the harm it causes. “Our biggest obstacle is that people haven’t heard about this. That’s why I wrote this book, so I am eager to give people choices. It starts with information. People have to understand the pay off they will get. The changes I suggest: throw out animal products and keep oils to a minimum.”
He urges his patients to take a two-step process: One, take inventory of what other foods are available. For instance, for breakfast, try oatmeal with fruit, and instead of meat sausage, try vegetarian sausage, he said. Try the new fare for three weeks.
“At the end of 21 days, people are healthier physically, they have more energy, are losing weight, and their tastes start to change,” he said.
Because he recommends a plant-based diet, does the meat industry hurl criticism at him? No, said this descendent of cattle rangers.
“They are honest folks, like the tobacco industry,” Dr. Barnard said. “But it became clear that something had to change, and that’s where we are now.”
Apparently the public is tuning in. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking Americans’ eating habits in 1909, when the annual individual consumption of meat was 123.9 pounds, he said. By 2004, it was slightly more than 200 pounds a person a year. By 2010, it had dropped to 188.8 pounds a year.
Still, he said, “Americans altogether eat more than a million animals per hour, and it’s mostly chicken.”
Dr. Barnard’s talk, which is free and open to the public, will be in the Collier Building on the UT Health Science Campus. Entering the campus by way of the East Medical Loop off Arlington Avenue, Collier is adjacent to parking lot Area 44. In this link to the campus map, Collier is marked COB: utoledo.edu/campus/directions/pdfs/HealthScienceCampus.pdf
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