How protein could prevent Alzheimer’s

Everyone becomes more forgetful with age. People start misplacing their keys and worry that they’re losing their marbles. But that’s quite normal. When you forget what to use your keys for, that’s when you might consider a dementia test.

Seventy per cent of people suffering dementia have Alzheimer’s disease, the second major cause of death in Australians. Most common in older age, dementia affects three in ten people over 85 years old. It destroys neurons, causing brain shrinkage and declines in memory, thinking, emotional control and behaviour.

Slipping into dementia can be scary for sufferers, while they are aware of what’s happening. Family members find it distressing when the person they know and love switches personality, forgets their name or no longer even recognises them.

The good news is that like most modern diseases, lifestyle choices can help to prevent dementia and prolong quality of life.

Lifestyle and dementia

A landmark study by Cambridge university researchers identified seven lifestyle factors that could prevent one in three cases of Alzheimer’s disease. Most striking was regular physical activity. Education and reducing smoking and diet-related conditions like obesity, diabetes and hypertension were also protective.

Other research has shown that B vitamins can slow the rate of brain shrinkage by lowering homocysteine in people with mild cognitive impairment – an Alzheimer’s disease precursor. Some evidence suggests a Mediterranean diet rich in plant foods may prevent dementia onset.

What about protein?

New Australian research, published by researchers at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia, suggests that eating foods high in protein could reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The study showed that people who ate the most protein had lowest levels of amyloid beta – clumps of protein in the brain that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers investigated the diets of 541 cognitively normal adults and found that people who consumed around 118g of protein per day were twelve times less likely to have high amyloid beta levels than those who ate only 54g per day.

Lead author, Dr Binosha Fernando, said it’s not clear how protein might reduce Alzheimer’s disease risk. He speculated that a high protein diet may exert its effects by lowering blood pressure. High blood pressure increases risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia.

Dr Fernando suggests that eating 120g of protein per day could give people the protective effect their study showed. For instance, he says, you could have a mixed bean salad with tuna for lunch, a serve of chicken with salad for dinner and a handful of peanuts in between.

Good protein sources include animal foods like eggs, dairy, chicken, fish and meat, and plant foods like legumes (e.g. chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans) and nuts.

Protein intake is one of several confusing nutrition messages. This study supports other research suggesting we need more protein than is currently recommended. Particularly in aging, protein can also help prevent other conditions like sarcopenia and osteoporosis.


Sign up for our newsletter