Caregivers of older adults with dementia invest an enormous amount of time and effort attempting to halt or delay the progression of the disease. Providing optimal nutrition is one of the best ways to promote a healthy mind and body. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of foods that boost — or bog down — brain function.
With a little planning, caregivers can maximize mealtimes to:
- Decrease the chances of sundowning
- Avoid foods known to advance dementia
- Offer nutritious options that promote brain health
- Overcome common obstacles that can contribute to malnutrition
Scheduling and snacking to prevent sundowning
Many individuals with dementia experience sundown syndrome, which is characterized by confusion or agitation in the late afternoon or evening. While the cause of sundown syndrome may vary for each individual, triggers are likely to include fatigue, the change in light and nutritional status. It’s best to avoid large meals and alcoholic and caffeinated beverages in the evening because they can interfere with sleep.
Even beyond the realm of sleep, the timing of meals is an easy adjustment that may decrease sundowning. As the body marshals its resources toward digestion after a meal blood pressure drops, which results in a smaller amount of oxygen reaching the brain. This reduced oxygen level combined with other potential triggers may increase the likelihood of an outburst.
Likewise, the after-dinner surge in blood glucose levels may adversely affect individuals who have dementia as well as metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Because of their increased sensitivity to blood sugar levels, the temporary sensation of post-meal tiredness or elevated energy might heighten anxiety, fear or hostility in some seniors.
Additionally, if an older adult is not eating enough nutritionally dense food, hunger pangs can add to the severity of the sundowning episodes. The combination of being unable to communicate their hunger mixed with late-day confusion, anxiety or agitation is likely to erupt in outbursts. To equalize nutritional intake and increase the amount of food eaten, caregivers may consider offering several smaller meals instead of three large ones.
Avoiding foods that accelerate Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia
Studies have shown certain foods can make dementia worse by contributing to brain cell aging and damage, the formation of protein clusters associated with dementia or the risk of vascular dementia.
- Margarine: Olive and coconut oil (for cooking), nut butters and pureed avocado (for toast) and Greek yogurt or pumpkin puree (for baking) are substitutions for products with diacetyl, which may intensify the damaging effects of an abnormal brain protein linked to Alzheimer’s.
- Soda and other sugary beverages: Linked to diabetes and a decline in memory-related functions, these drinks can be replaced with water, tea or smoothies.
- Processed meat and cheeses (ham, sausage, hot dogs, etc.): Select products without nitrosamines, which cause the liver to produce fats that are toxic when they travel to the brain.
- Foods containing MSG: Read the labels on frozen dinners, salad dressings and snack foods and forego those with this ingredient that can increase neuro-sensitivity and contribute to plaque development in the brain.
- Fried foods: Baking or air-frying foods are alternatives to frying.
Bolstering brain health with better nutrition
In its guidelines, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests individuals with dementia can benefit from a diet that:
- Incorporates a variety of healthy foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean protein
- Limits butter, solid shortening, lard and fatty cuts of meat and other food that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol
- Is low in refined sugars and salt
Beyond those practical guidelines, many medical professionals advocate the DASH, MIND or Mediterranean diets as a way to improve the health of all age groups.
Those diets support brain function with the nutrients found in:
- Spinach, collard and other dark leafy greens
- Bok choy, broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables
- Beans and other legumes
- Berries and cherries
- Dark chocolate
- Flax, sunflower and other seeds
- Turmeric and other brain-boosting spices
- Yogurt, cottage cheese, sauerkraut and other probiotic foods and
- Apricots, strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and other fruits.
The addition of these foods or subtraction of highly processed products can benefit the entire family.
Overcoming obstacles that contribute to malnutrition
Often the obstacles older adults must overcome to eat a healthy diet are less about taste and texture and more about the form the food takes. As dementia progresses, loss of appetite and motor skills as well as difficulty chewing and swallowing can make eating more challenging. A change in strategy may be necessary to maintain or improve nutrition.
To combat appetite loss, you may consider amping up the aroma and appeal with fresh herbs, gravy or broth.
If swallowing and chewing are problematic, you may offer soft, moist foods such scrambled eggs, oatmeal, yogurt, cottage cheese, mashed potatoes, applesauce, soups, juices, milkshakes and smoothies.
If holding utensils is increasingly difficult, you may serve “finger foods” cut into half-inch pieces such as sandwiches, cheeses, miniature quiches, fruits, spring rolls or potatoes.
Since food is the building block of life, making sure an older family member or friend is getting the right nutrition is always a priority for caregivers. If you’re concerned insufficient nutrition is affecting an adult with dementia, be sure to discuss your concerns with a medical professional. Physicians, dietitians and occupational therapists can all offer a wealth of information, tips, techniques and adaptive devices to help you make the most of mealtime.