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While researching for an article on Alzheimer’s disease, I noticed that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is singing a different tune about what people can do to reduce their chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Although the older version is gone as of September 20, the December 2010 Scientific American published a report that reflects the ideas behind it.

The report states, “When the National Institutes of Health convened a panel of independent experts this past April on how to prevent Alzhei­mer’s disease, the conclusions were pretty grim. The panel determined that ‘no evidence of even moderate scientific quality’ links anything—from herbal or nutritional supplements to prescription medications to social, economic or environmental conditions—with the slightest decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, the committee argued, there is little credible evidence that you can do anything to delay the kinds of memory problems that are often associated with aging. . . . The expert panel concluded, with one exception, that ‘all existing evidence suggests that antihypertensive treatment results in no cognitive benefit.'”

These comments, of course, generated much controversy, particularly with respect to the known and potential benefits of a nutritious diet, not smoking, treating hypertension (high blood pressure) and increasing physical activity.

But now the updated NIH page reports that “a host of factors beyond basic genetics may play a role in the development and course of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a great deal of interest, for example, in associations between cognitive decline and vascular and metabolic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. . . . Further, a nutritious diet, physical activity, social engagement, and mentally stimulating pursuits can all help people stay healthy as they age. New research suggests the possibility that these and other factors also might help to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.”

This is a huge step in the right direction. And they’re right—so much is still unknown. What they recommend as a “nutritious diet,” however, would severely limit some of the nutrients essential to brain health. One example involves their recommendations for fat intake. Although I applaud their recommendation to increase alpha-lipoic acids (ALA) and omega-3 fatty acids (docosahexaenoic acid or DHA), they only recommend taking fish oil supplements instead of looking to whole foods (like wild-caught fish). Instead of limiting red meat and allowing only low-fat dairy products, for example, they could have recommended grass-fed beef and full-fat dairy products from pastured animals, which have much higher levels of omega-3 and produce fats that actually nourish the brain.

The changes to the NIH recommendations are positive. And who knows—perhaps one day the NIH will also discover that the gut-brain connection may extend to dementia and related disorders, and will recommend repairing the digestive tract as a possible help for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In the meantime, I’m going to go pour myself a nice, tall glass of full-fat raw milk and nourish my brain.

Until next time~