Like many people, I have experienced dementia first hand.
Through the progressive mental decline of grandparents on both sides of my family, I know personally the slow-motion tragedy of a loved one’s mind fading into oblivion, one uncertain recollection at a time.
When my grandfather was in his late 70s he was reduced to repeatedly asking my mother — in a way that seemed to beg for both guidance and forgiveness — if she was his wife.
His plaintive question overshadows my memories of a young, robust man with a deeply resonant voice and confident bearing.
In her later years my grandmother became increasingly confused — I once had to stop her pouring breakfast cereal into her glass of sherry.
Fermented foods such as vinegar and red wine could help you achieve a long and healthy life
Although it’s wonderful we can now expect to live such long lives, there is a serious downside: record numbers of people suffer serious brain disorders and cognitive decline in later life.
Studies show in the past 20 years that deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia have risen more than threefold, and those from Parkinson’s disease have doubled globally.
As director of gerontology at the Harvard Personal Genome Project, the research study I help to run at Harvard Medical School, I occasionally meet very old people who remain mentally sharp, but unfortunately, mental decline and memory loss are the norm.
What I have learned from both my work and my own family experience is that a long lifespan is important, but how fulfilling life is depends on how well your mind works during that time.
I use the term ‘mindspan’ to capture this essential idea: the pinnacle of living isn’t just a long lifespan, it is maximum mindspan.
Most experts agree that good genes are responsible for between 20 and 35 per cent of extreme longevity, and the rest is down to environmental factors.
And diet is a major component of that. Our genes haven’t changed in the past two or three decades, but our foods, diets, and lifestyles have — radically.
Many dietary factors act as volume controls to turn the level of genes up or down, or as switches to turn them on or off.
The solution to fighting off dementia lies with these dietary factors — what you put on your plate.
Diet is a major component of achieving longevity. Our genes haven’t changed in the past two or three decades, but our foods, diets, and lifestyles have — radically
I’ve studied the diet and lifestyles of communities across the world where people live long lives, and have identified among them those I call the ‘Mindspan Elite’ — people who live long lives and remain as alert, active, and autonomous as people decades younger.
The fact is that in most countries, long life is usually accompanied by an increasing risk of mental impairment such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Finland, Iceland, the U.S., Sweden, and the Netherlands, for example, all have good healthcare and longevity, but they suffer the highest rates of Alzheimer’s disease in the world. I call these communities the ‘Mindspan Risk’.
Other countries, however, experience even greater longevity and much better late-life cognitive functioning.
The best of the best is Japan, followed closely by a few others such as France and Italy.
But even within countries there are pockets of longevity that do better their long-lived compatriots.
Studies show in the past 20 years that deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have risen more than threefold, and those from Parkinson’s disease have doubled globally
These ‘Mindspan Elite’ can be found among communities in Mediterranean France, Italy, Spain, and Japan.
They may be separated geographically and culturally, and their way of eating might be diverse, but it shares many common factors.
Pulling together this longevity research and essential bits from the frontiers of laboratory science — especially in genetics — I’ve devised a dietary programme, the Mindspan Diet, that will reduce your risk of killer diseases and dementia.
Everyone — from young to old, lean to overweight — will benefit from it.
SURPRISING TRUTH ABOUT WHITE RICE
Some of my recommendations will surprise you.
There are many sources of advice on how to achieve a long and healthy life but fitness websites, articles and books nearly all fail at the most fundamental level: they don’t know or understand how and why we live as long as we do, and how and why we age.
And many provide information that is likely to age you — and your brain — faster.
The secret to optimum long-term brain health is not what you might think.
So, yes you need to eat lots of leafy green vegetables, beans and pulses and cut right back on sugar and sugary foods — that’s now incontrovertible, whatever healthy diet plan you’re looking at.
The Mindspan Elite have a diet rich in ‘white’ carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and white rice, so processed carbohydrates do have their place in the Mindspan diet
But my research has uncovered the basis for some potentially controversial recommendations: the Mindspan Elite have a diet rich in ‘white’ carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and white rice, so processed carbohydrates do have their place in the Mindspan diet.
Less controversially, fermented foods such as vinegar, pickles, and even red wine, also play a significant role.
But perhaps the most controversial — but key — recommendation is to avoid foods that are very high in iron, including otherwise healthful foods that are enriched with it.
I will explain this in more detail in next week’s Good Health, but today the focus is on iron.
IRON – THE BRAIN SABOTEUR
There has been much debate in recent decades about fats and carbohydrates, but in my view the most worrying dietary factor of all is iron.
There is no doubt that iron, which is abundant in red meat as well as many other foods, is a critical nutrient for proper functioning of the body and mind — it is an essential mineral which forms an important component of haemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs and throughout your body.
However, most adults in the developed world get far too much iron.
And while we all know that young people are more robust and can tolerate stresses that might harm older people, what we don’t fully appreciate is that some things that are good for us when we are young can harm us as we age.
There is no doubt that iron, which is abundant in red meat as well as many other foods, is a critical nutrient for proper functioning of the body and mind
Cutting-edge research has convinced me that our bodies and food interact differently at different stages of our lives, and our physical and mental needs change with age. And there is no more significant an example of this than iron.
Just as an older car rusts, so does your body. The body rust comes in the form of deposits of waste products (for example, the plaques that gather in the brain to become the primary drivers of Alzheimer’s).
Rust also comes in the form of damage when DNA and proteins react with oxygen (what we know as ‘oxidisation’).
Because iron carries the oxygen throughout the body, iron is a primary driver in this rusting process.
There are excellent systems for waste disposal and damage repair in the body, but as we age they can easily become overwhelmed.
Many people are surprised to hear all this. They think of iron, like other micronutrients such as vitamin C and vitamin E, as purely beneficial.
Yes, while we are young (up to the age of about 20), iron is a critical nutrient for proper brain development, and women need a good source of dietary iron to avoid anaemia right up to the menopause.
But many gene variants — a diet too rich in (or fortified by) iron, or taking iron supplements unnecessarily — can lead to an excess of iron as we get older.
Because iron carries the oxygen throughout the body, iron is a primary driver in your body’s ageing process – damage due to oxidisation
And the peril posed by iron is unique because unlike other minerals, your body doesn’t have a way to get rid of excess.
The higher the iron levels in your body, the greater will be the burden of accumulated waste products and damage over time.
Studies show that people who regularly donate blood have significantly reduced body iron stores, less damage to their blood vessels, and overall better heart and brain health when compared with people who rarely or never donate.
Too much iron can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, motor neurone disease, stroke and other diseases of the brain and nervous system.
(And one of the few successful clinical trials of drugs for treating Alzheimer’s involved a drug that specifically binds and inactivates iron.)
In fact, iron is a primary dietary risk for neurodegeneration and dementia because it turns up the volume on key genes involved in creating the protein deposits characteristic of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases.
SHOULD YOU AVOID FORTIFIED FOOD?
I’d go so far as to say most men are probably getting more iron in their diet than is safe, and although women are partially protected until menopause (regular menstruation keeps body iron stores low), after that their risk matches that of men.
Too much iron puts men at a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia at younger ages than women.
The average age men develop these diseases is five years younger. But in later years, women’s iron levels increase in the body and brain more rapidly than in men.
Since women live longer, this partly explains why they have a more than 50 per cent higher risk of Alzheimer’s.
Studies show women who have a pre-menopausal hysterectomy (as they no longer menstruate they do not regularly lose blood iron) accumulate brain iron at the same rate as men.
Variants of other genes greatly increase the absorption of iron from food. Even if you don’t carry any of these, it’s important to remember a poor diet can still lead to high blood iron
There are variants of two genes (called APOE and APP) known to cause Alzheimer’s at an early age — the normal function of these genes is to interact with iron, and the harmful variants of these genes amplify the effects of iron in the brain.
Variants of other genes greatly increase the absorption of iron from food. Even if you don’t carry any of these, it’s important to remember a poor diet can still lead to high blood iron and accelerated ageing.
If you are wondering if the Mindspan Elite have lower body iron stores than the Mindspan Risk, the answer is that their iron levels aren’t just lower, but dramatically lower.
What characterises their diet is that they eat little — if any red — meat.
High consumption of red meat will greatly increase iron stores, which, I believe, helps explains why many studies have shown that a low-meat or vegetarian diet improves cardiovascular health.
Iron supplements — unless specifically prescribed for anaemia —could be catastrophic for some people.
Recent research suggests that Parkinson’s may be caused by iron accumulation and the resultant increased oxidative damage in key brain regions.
As part of our gene project at Harvard we tested a man in his 60s who was experiencing early symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Recent research suggests that Parkinson’s may be caused by iron accumulation and the resultant increased oxidative damage in key brain regions
He’d been taking a daily iron supplement for years to boost his energy levels.
When we analysed his genetic profile, we found he had inherited an ‘iron overload’ disorder called haemochromatosis.
Although symptom-free and rarely detected, this disorder is fairly common and has been found in some recent studies to be a risk factor for a range of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
The genetic finding was confirmed by a blood test showing he had extremely high levels of iron in his blood.
He stopped taking the iron supplements and began conventional treatment for his Parkinson’s — the progression of his disease has since slowed greatly.
But far more worrying than supplements, I believe, is the over-fortification of basic foods with iron, which means all of us are unwittingly topping up our brain’s iron burden at every meal, especially at breakfast every morning.
BACKLASH AGAINST IRON ENRICHMENT
Since the Fifties all white flour and many breakfast cereals have been fortified with iron.
In the UK white flour is fortified with iron (and other vitamins) by law — wholemeal flour is not. The U.S. also fortifies rice and some corn products.
Although fortification probably boosts the health of young people in developing countries, in developed ones it causes a massive iron glut.
In fact, Sweden and Denmark, which originally led the enrichment campaign, have now repealed their iron-enrichment programmes, in acknowledgement of abundant iron in modern diets, and extensive scientific evidence of the risks and benefits of iron enrichment.
The problem with the fortification of flour is not just the excess, but the mode of delivery.
In the UK white flour is fortified with iron (and other vitamins) by law — wholemeal flour is not. The U.S. also fortifies rice and some corn products
It means the iron is absorbed rapidly into the system alongside large amounts of sugars from the starch in the grain.
This is a toxic and completely unnatural combination (the starch in wholemeal flour is broken down more slowly so the iron is absorbed more slowly) which produces unprecedented stresses on your body, especially your blood vessels and your pancreas, which normally produces insulin to keep your blood sugar levels healthy.
It is no coincidence that none of the Mindspan Elite Mediterranean regions in France, Italy and Spain produce pasta, bread, rice or other grain products enriched with iron.
One more thing about iron: most people think carbohydrates cause diabetes, but recent studies suggest that iron is a bigger risk factor for the development of diabetes, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study of 32,000 nurses published in JAMA in 2004, and a 1998 Finnish study in the BMJ.
Per gram of food, red meat triggers double the effect on blood sugar levels as pasta! So excess iron is the hidden risk for diabetes in your diet, not ‘good’ carbohydrates.
Adapted by LOUISE ATKINSON from The Mindspan Diet by Preston W. Estep is published by Oneworld, priced £14.99.
To order a copy for £11.24 (25 per cent discount) visit mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until November 1 2016.