Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — A personal experience highlights the horrific ugliness of dementia. The precipitous cognitive decline of a loved one shakes family members and leaves all who bear witness asking, “Will this be me one day?” The food and beverage industry may be in position to play a role in prevention and offer a reassuring response.

There is no single definition of dementia. It is a group of conditions and diseases characterized by the impairment of cognitive functions. The impairment may be slight or so disruptive as to make independent living impossible. The likelihood of dementia increases with time, and as people live longer, the incidence of dementia has increased.

The scale of the problem dementia poses to aging populations around the world has prompted an urgent search for solutions. Medical researchers are exploring treatments to treat, prevent or slow the progression of dementia-related conditions, but, to date, cures or effective treatments have proven elusive. Shelves at retailers are full of supplements claiming to sharpen one’s focus or maintain cognitive function. Even video games featuring puzzles of all sorts are marketed to “exercise” the mind.

Food companies see opportunity and are investing in developing products to maintain or even improve cognitive focus. Examples include ingredients such as adaptogens, nootropics, citicoline and others.

Medical research continues, and the effectiveness of supplements and games is anecdotal. Efforts to prove the effectiveness of food and beverage products specifically formulated to maintain or improve cognitive function also are in a nascent phase.

While the search for successful treatments proceeds, prevention through diet is an avenue generating interest. Studies suggest what we eat affects whether the aging brain remains healthy, according to the National Institute on Aging, a department of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Two dietary patterns the NIH identifies as promising are the Mediterranean and the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diets. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish and seafood, unsaturated fats, and small amounts of red meat, eggs and sweets. The MIND diet is a variation of the Mediterranean diet that also emphasizes reducing the incidence of hypertension, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

The studies supporting the benefits of the Mediterranean and MIND diets are observational. Those supporting the Mediterranean diet compared cognitively normal people who ate a Mediterranean diet with those who ate a Western-style diet, which contains more red meat, saturated fats and sugar. Evidence supporting the MIND diet comes from observational studies of more than 900 dementia-free older adults, which found that closely following the diet was associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and a slower rate of cognitive decline.

A challenge in promoting many health and wellness regimens or the benefits of functional ingredients is meeting consumer expectations for results they are able to readily perceive. It is a hurdle those marketing products for bone density or digestive health must regularly overcome.

But products and regimens promoting the prevention of dementia may be different. The motivation to prevent such an outcome is immeasurably strong once one witnesses the full effects of a loved one’s cognitive decline. Interest in prevention will grow as more people endure the experience.