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Why eating well is important in dementia

We’re seeing new advice almost every day on how to prevent or delay dementia. It’s hard to know what to do for the best.

A new review has taken a look at a wide range of current research to see if there is knowledge that we could use to help our parents – and ourselves – prevent or manage dementia.

Rapid weight loss can be a very early sign of dementia

Not eating enough is potentially a greater health risk than obesity for older people, says the review. There are many reasons why older people eat less well and many may simply be what happens as we get older so knowing whether to be worried or not is difficult.

Some people lose their sense of smell and taste so eating becomes less appealing. Others find planning, shopping and cooking increasingly difficult. Both can be normal ageing or early symptoms of dementia.

Eating less well will clearly lead to weight loss over time. Rapid weight loss may be an early indication of dementia and could start as much as three to six years before dementia is officially diagnosed.

Weight loss is often seen as an intrinsic part of dementia. The researchers here ague that actually there’s much that can be done to avoid it.

Mealtimes get harder as dementia progresses

As dementia progresses there will be all sorts of reasons why people stop eating well – many of which can be addressed.

Some people will simply forget to eat. Those who tend to wander may leave a meal unfinished and not come back to it. Sometimes people will simply refuse to eat what’s offered to them and take exception to certain foods and drinks. Reminders and the right choices can easily help here.

As dementia advances there are greater challenges. People may experience dyspraxia – the loss of the ability to plan and accomplish tasks that require motor skills such as eating. Anyone with agnosia will find it increasingly difficult to recognise once familiar objects and people making mealtimes harder to manage. Help with feeding may become necessary.

There are physical challenges as well. Normal ageing can lead to dental issues that make eating more difficult – hence the tendency for care homes to serve softer foods. As dementia progresses people may actually become unable to eat because they can’t chew or swallow – or even open their mouth.

How we can help extend independent living

While the advice from the review is focused on care homes there are ideas we can pull out to discuss with our parents’ healthcare team wherever they are living.

As our parents age, we can keep an eye on their weight and talk to healthcare professionals about any worries. We can help them to access nutritious meals even if they are struggling to shop or cook for themselves.

Questions to ask the care home

Once it’s clear that a parent does have dementia then it’s still important to focus on diet, nutrition and wellbeing.

The report highlights steps that care homes and hospitals should be taking to ensure good nutrition for their patients, and these are aspects that we can ask about when choosing a home.

  • Do they regularly monitor weight?
  • Do they have plans for optimising nutrition – and do they work with professional nutritionists to achieve that?
  • Are staff trained to help people who find eating and drinking difficult or who show challenging behaviour?
  • Has the dining environment been designed for the needs of dementia patients?

Can specific diets and supplements prevent dementia?

The challenges of life with dementia are daunting for relatives. Anything we can do to prevent it for our parents and ourselves would be good. Supplements are often highlighted as a possibility.

With that in mind the researchers looked at studies on various types of diet and supplements including micro- and macro-nutrients such as vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, flavonoids, omega-3 and a Mediterranean diet.

While there is plenty of research going on the reviewers couldn’t definitively say at this point that there is a link between any of these and cognitive function. What they were willing to say was that good nutrition throughout life from pre-natal care is important to give the brain the best chance of developing properly and prevent neurodegeneration.

The review, “Nutrition and Dementia” was led by Professor Martin Prince of King’s College London and commissioned by the Compass Group and Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI). You can read the full report on ADI’s website.

Read more of our articles about eating well and eating difficulties:

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