Avoiding dementia – new research

Dementia is a scary disease, so we all want to do everything we can to avoid it. One recent study showed that vegetarians have a 38% lower risk of dementia. We already knew that part of the reason was that vegetarians have, on average, a much lower prevalence of risk factors such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol and lower levels of markers for inflammation such a C-reactive protein, but now new research shows there’s an additional reason.

Investigators found that individuals with the highest blood levels of lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-cryptoxanthin were less likely to have dementia, even decades later than their peers with lower levels of these phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are nutrients found in plant foods besides vitamins, minerals and fiber, that nourish our bodies and are the focus of a lot of medical research.

We’ve written about how lutein and zeaxanthin are two phytonutrients that help prevent macular degeneration but new research shows they may also help lower the risk of dementia. The third phytonutrient, beta-cryptoxanthin, is intriguing. Beta-cryptoxanthin has several functions that are important for human health, including roles in antioxidant defense and cell-to-cell communication. Most importantly, beta-cryptoxanthin is a precursor of vitamin A, which is an essential nutrient needed for eyesight, growth, development and immune response.

Foods that have high levels of beta-cryptoxanthin include butternut squash, tangerines, papaya and red peppers.

Dementia is not a specific disease but rather a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and vascular dementia the second most common. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurologic disorder that causes the brain to shrink (atrophy) and brain cells to die. In vascular dementia, the brain is damaged because of problems with blood vessels that supply of blood to the brain.

Current estimates are that about 5.8 million people in the United States have age-related dementia. Not only does dementia take an emotional toll, caring for a person living with dementia is more expensive and time-consuming for families than most other conditions common at older ages.

It’s good to know that a plant-based diet in general, and foods containing lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-cryptoxanthin in particular, can help to prevent this terrible condition.