What Role Does Food Play In Dementia Management?

Dementia Management
People around the globe work to earn their meals. Food acts as an excellent motivator – people know that they have to work in order to “put food on the table”. Food or nutrition plays an essential role in day-to-day life; from being our source of energy to stimulation & development, and disease prevention.

Our senses of feel, smell, sight, and taste are enhanced when there’s food on a plate. When it comes to healthcare needs, the right nutrition can help play both a preventive and curative role.

Food and dementia have a close connection; there is much to learn and explore apart from its role as an energy generator. Worldwide, 55 million people are living with dementia. Dementia is a neurodegenerative condition that affects the cognitive functions of the brain such as thinking, remembering, and reasoning. Memory loss, hindrance in sound judgment, along with several neuropsychiatric symptoms like agitation, sleeping impairment, depression, delirium, and hallucination are accompanied with its onset. It is irreversible and can only be managed to delay the progression. An important thing to remember is that though dementia is common in the elderly, it is not a normal part of ageing.

Dementia Management

Certain lifestyle factors including diet and (lack of) physical activity are considered risk factors for dementia. Studies show that dementia is more common in seniors with diabetes (type-II), increased body mass index, cardiovascular risks, high cholesterol (leading to hypertension), and atherosclerosis (increasingly stiff and blocked arteries), although the relation between diabetes and dementia is still debatable. As per the Alzheimer’s society, dementia risk is comparatively lowest in people who have adapted healthy lifestyles in mid-life (aged 40–65). A healthy lifestyle includes maintaining regular mental, physical and social activity, living a smoke-free, stress-free life, moderate consumption of liquor and keeping a healthy balanced diet.

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When it comes to diet, loads of fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, fish, low-fat dairy products, beans, and pulses are highly recommended. People need to limit the intake of red and processed meat as much as they can to avoid the risk of dementia in later life. More than a teaspoon of salt per day is also dangerous! Studies show that flavonoids (a kind of chemical found in fruits & vegetables) releases powerful antioxidant substances that can offer protection against cognitive decline. Eatables such as tea, fruits (berries), vegetables and wine offer a good proportion of flavonoids. There is also increasing evidence about eating a Mediterranean-style diet which can lower the risk of getting some of the other forms of dementia. A typical Mediterranean diet is high in fruits, veggies, cereals, legumes with moderate amounts of dairy and oily fish, and minimally sufficient amounts of meat, sugar, and saturated fats. This diet works by reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus, and stroke. Having a couple of teaspoons of virgin coconut oil has also shown similar results.

Food as an important aspect of caring for someone with dementia does not only refer to food intake.

A lot of thought has to go in-to ensure that proper nutrition levels are met. The right caregiver, lighting, environment, mood preceding, and during meal times, crockery & cutlery, and removing distractions; everything has a role to play. As dementia progresses, it is advisable to move to premixed food ideally served in solid coloured crockery to avoid confusion of seeing various items  on a plate like in a typical Indian thali. The caregiver prompts or assists when required. Chewing and swallowing difficulties also need to be kept in mind when deciding the texture of the meal. Like with everyone, the presentation of the meal is also important to ensure it looks inviting and appetizing.

Food can also be used to actively engage and uplift their mood. Much can be done especially in the Indian context. From involving them in helping cook an elaborate meal like a biryani or curry, doing fun activities together such as baking or garnishing to non-fire activities such as making achaars, salads, rolling laddoos, assembling a fruit or papdi chaat. It is always fun when the whole family comes together for a common activity and relishes the outcome together! One can also use ingredients especially for Indian food for cognitive stimulation! For eg: separating rajma, chole & chane or plucking methi leaves for concentration, or rolling a roti for motor exercises!

Food is the basis of all organisms’ sustainability. In order to thrive and survive, one needs to understand both its vastness and simplicity to align with its purpose and meaning. Be it dementia, non-dementia; above all factors, food on the table is bound to create memories and bring people together.

Neha Sinha is the CEO & Co-founder of Epoch Elder Care and dementia specialist. The views expressed are the author’s own.