When equipped with the right dietary guidelines, vitamins, and social support from close relatives, senior adults can help mitigate and prevent loss of memory. This comprehensive guide shares some of the most simple tactics when it comes to battling disorders that target a person's memory.(Brook Larke | Unsplash)
problems are a major issue facing senior adults in the United States. In fact,
as many as 40% of U.S. adults over the age of 65 experience memory
impairments as they age. On top of being inconvenient or frustrating, memory loss
can have a variety of health consequences, ranging from minor issues to
potentially life-threatening problems — including malnutrition.
Malnutrition is one of the most common and serious risks associated with memory impairments in senior adults. In addition to natural processes, like the slowing of your metabolism and decreased nutrient absorption, memory impairments of any kind can make it difficult for them to get the nutrients they need to thrive.
Maintaining adequate nutrition is crucial to ensuring a high quality of life as people get older. Whether your loved one hasn’t yet experienced memory loss or they’ve been diagnosed with a memory loss disorder, it’s crucial to know more about how to use their diet to prevent further memory problems and support overall brain health.
loss is a broad term that encompasses many different situations, health
conditions, or impairments related to your brain’s ability to remember details
or events. It can be short-term or long-term, temporary or permanent. Memory
problems have a variety of causes, such as head injuries, alcohol consumption,
or other physical and mental health conditions.
For many senior adults, memory loss is a natural and normal part of the aging process. For others, memory loss can take the form of a diagnosable disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
No matter the cause, memory impairments can have a profound impact on eating habits. Common changes and impacts include:
This is not a comprehensive list of the ways memory impairments can affect eating habits. Just as memory loss can vary, so can its impacts on your loved one’s eating habits, desire to eat, or ability to eat. Be mindful of how your patient feels about food, and pay attention to any difficulties they may face with eating.
There are several ways you can offer support and assistance to a loved one or patient who is struggling with eating. Different eating problems have unique symptoms and causes, and therefore require equally unique solutions. It’s important to focus on addressing the specific difficulties your loved one faces and finding something that works well for their needs.
Loss of appetite is a common result of memory problems and memory disorders. Some reasons you may experience loss of appetite include not recognizing the feeling of hunger, experiencing a mental health issue (such as depression) that suppresses appetite, taking a medication that reduces appetite, or simply forgetting to eat.
Consider trying the following strategies to encourage eating and stimulate appetite:
If the above methods don’t work for your loved one, you can always talk to a doctor about medications that can help stimulate an appetite.
Memory loss can also lead to difficulties with chewing or swallowing food. This issue is more common in people who have late-stage Alzheimer’s or dementia, but pain or troubles with chewing and swallowing can impact anyone with memory loss.
Here are some best practices to follow for issues with chewing and swallowing:
Make sure you or someone in your home is familiar with the Heimlich maneuver, in case choking blocks your loved one’s airways. Even if you do know the Heimlich maneuver, always call 9-1-1 for help if your loved one is choking.
Many senior adults experience issues with coordination and motor skills, especially if they have memory loss. They may have trouble grasping utensils and cups, or forget how to use them properly.
Tactile and grasping problems can be more difficult to overcome, but some helpful ideas include:
If they have continued or escalating difficulties, you can work with an occupational therapist to help improve their motor skills. You can also look for adaptive utensils, cups, and plates that are designed to make eating and drinking easier for individuals with tactile, gripping, or motor difficulties.
loss does not directly cause vision problems in and of itself. Just as it’s
common to experience age-related memory loss, senior adults may also experience
age-related vision loss.
Alzheimer’s has been
linked to several eye diseases, including glaucoma, age-related macular
degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy. While researchers do not fully
understand the relationship between these diseases, individuals with these
three eye diseases are more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Whatever the cause, vision impairment can make eating difficult, especially if the vision loss is relatively new or sudden. To assist someone with impaired vision at mealtimes, try the following:
There may also be adaptive tools and equipment available that can help people with low vision eat more easily. Be patient while you both adjust to this new normal.
Memory loss can result in behavioral changes, emotional shifts, and irritability. Researchers estimate that anywhere from 30% to 90% of people with dementia experience behavioral disturbances, including agitation, aggression, and disinhibition.
You may notice behavioral changes or increased irritability in your loved one at mealtimes. They may refuse to eat, insult the food, spit food out, or otherwise act out. Dealing with these shifts can be difficult and unpleasant, but there’s often a reason motivating this behavior, such as:
calm and level-headed during any instances of irritability or anger. Remember
that your loved one isn’t upset with you, and know that you are in a position
to help them resolve this issue. Keep an eye on their body language and facial
expressions to look for potential signs of irritation or frustration.
Don’t offer food or drink when they’re still upset. Instead, wait until they calm down to do so. Do your best to create a calm and pleasant experience, so they don’t feel stressed about finishing their meal.
to malnutrition, senior adults are at a
greater risk of dehydration. Frequently, senior adults become less aware of the
sensation of thirst. This can cause them to drink less water, even though they
still need the same amount to stay properly hydrated. Memory loss can increase
this risk, as senior adults may forget to drink liquids throughout the day or
forget how to drink.
Dehydration can have devastating health impacts; in extreme cases, it can be deadly. Further, dehydration can reduce cognitive functioning — including memory — potentially worsening the effects of memory loss disorders. Simply put, staying properly hydrated is an absolute necessity for all senior adults.
Here are a few ways to help senior adults stay hydrated and avoid the effects of dehydration:
In addition, you should pay attention to their water intake and try to look out for any signs of dehydration.
can be especially challenging if your loved one has severe memory loss. They
may feel confused or overwhelmed by food, or forget how to eat and drink
entirely. Forgetting how to eat and swallow is common in the late stages of
dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Consider trying the following techniques to help someone with severe memory issues eat:
For additional guidance specific to your loved one, be sure to talk with their doctor about how you can support their eating.
Whether your loved one has minor memory loss or has been diagnosed with a memory disorder, here are a few best practices that can help foster healthy eating habits:
Again, everyone has different challenges when it comes to eating with a memory disorder. Not all solutions will work well for all people. Take your time to find a strategy that effectively supports your patient or loved one.
Senior adults have different nutritional
than younger individuals. Generally, they need to eat less, due to reduced
activity levels and slowed metabolism. However, the calories they do eat need
to be nutrient-rich in order to maintain adequate nutrition and overall
wellbeing. Because of the additional difficulties and challenges they face,
eating a nutritious diet is particularly important for senior adults who are
dealing with a memory disorder.
It’s best for senior adults to eat a variety of whole foods, including:
there are foods that senior adults should limit, avoid, or completely eliminate
from their diet:
Simply put, guide your loved one or patient toward whole foods that are nutritionally dense, and help them limit or avoid heavily processed or prepackaged foods.
There is a strong link between the food you eat and your cognitive functioning. While certain foods can have a negative impact on brain health, others can have a positive effect. Some foods have even been shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. While researchers continually discover new ways to treat Alzheimer’s, preventing memory loss is crucial — especially when making simple dietary changes can have such big health benefits.
Whether your loved one is looking to lessen their risk of developing a memory disorder or prevent their disorder from worsening, encourage them to integrate the following foods in their diet:
However, these aren’t the only foods that can impact memory, and there are multiple diets well-suited to senior adults who are looking to support brain health.
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) is a helper molecule
in the human body that plays a crucial role in many biological processes,
ranging from repairing DNA to converting food into energy. It is essential for
human life, but NAD+ levels naturally decline as humans age. It’s thought that boosting NAD+ levels
could alleviate symptoms of memory loss disorders, increase overall cognitive
functioning, and protect brain health.
Nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) and nicotinamide riboside (NR) can help with raising NAD+ levels. They are both NAD+ precursors; the body can use NMN and NR and convert them into NAD+. By increasing the intake of foods that are rich in NMN and NR, you may be able to boost anti-aging NAD+ levels.
Common NAD+ boosting foods include:
Many of these foods have other benefits for senior adults and can be a regular part of a healthy diet. Some NAD+ boosting foods are even staples in other brain-boosting diets, including DASH, the Mediterranean, and MIND diets.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is designed to prevent and treat high blood pressure. It focuses on reducing sodium intake, while increasing intake of nutrient-dense foods. Because senior adults with hypertension are more likely to develop markers of Alzheimer’s, some professionals speculate that controlling blood pressure could reduce the risk of developing this disease. Further, researchers believe adhering to the DASH diet can slow rates of cognitive decline in senior adults.
The DASH diet encourages participants to eat:
If your loved one starts the DASH diet, they still need to eat salt, as sodium is a necessary nutrient for maintaining health. Instead of eliminating salt, think of the DASH diet as a way to help them consume sodium more mindfully and increase the amount of whole, nutrient-rich foods in their diet.
Mediterranean diet is based on the foods and cooking methods of countries near
the Mediterranean Sea, including Italy and Greece. While it was originally
designed to promote heart health, it has since been found to have a variety of
health benefits — including benefits for the brain and cognition. Adhering to
the Mediterranean diet could decrease the risk of
cognitive impairment and even prevent typical memory loss from developing into
Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The Mediterranean diet involves eating:
The diet is primarily plant-based, though participants can eat seafood and meat. On this diet, your loved one should also avoid highly processed foods, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. Despite these restrictions, the Mediterranean diet is highly flexible and can easily be adapted to suit your loved one’s preferences.
Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet was
designed specifically to delay the onset of memory loss and the development of
Alzheimer’s and dementia. It combines aspects of both the Mediterranean and the
DASH diets to help senior adults support their brain health. Researchers have
questioned the effectiveness of the MIND diet, but multiple studies have found
that it appears to reduce
age-related cognitive decline and could be an effective way to decrease the risk of
Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The MIND diet works differently from other diet plans. Rather than dictating specific meal plans or foods to eat and avoid, the MIND diet encourages participants to eat more of 10 foods that have been proven to benefit brain health:
The MIND diet also outlines five foods that participants should try to eat less of, including:
You can help your loved one or patient adapt the MIND diet to suit their needs and preferences, without completely sacrificing their favorite foods or foods not included in the diet. Even making small changes or moderately following the diet could still be beneficial for them.
Among other health problems, people with less healthy diets are at a greater risk of experiencing cognitive decline, including issues with memory. “Healthy diet” may be a subjective term, but there are foods that have been linked to reduced cognitive function and memory. Foods that can negatively impact memory include:
Many of these foods are difficult to eliminate from a patient or loved one’s diet entirely, but in order to promote brain health, it’s best to avoid them as much as possible.
addition to a nutritionally rich diet, senior adults may need to take
supplements to ensure they are getting all of the nutrients they need to
maintain health. According to one poll, 68% of seniors take
supplements regularly, while one study found that almost one-third of seniors
take at least four dietary supplements. However, it’s important to be cautious
when incorporating supplements into a senior adult’s health regimen.
If possible, it’s best to get nutrients from food. Supplements can be used to fill any nutritional gaps, but they should never replace real food. If your patient or loved one is struggling to eat or missing out on key nutrients, supplements can be a helpful addition to their diet. Supplements can interact with medications and impact the body in unexpected ways, so you should always talk to a doctor or medical professional before giving any to a senior adult. They can also help you find the appropriate supplement for your loved one’s specific needs.
There are many different types of supplements that can assist senior adults with memory, boost cognitive functioning, and support brain health, including:
Taking vitamin or mineral supplements can help your patient or loved one get the essential nutrients they need, if their physician has indicated that they have a deficiency. It is important to consult a physician before beginning any vitamin supplementation, as it is possible to intake excessive amounts of vitamins and cause negative side-effects. The following vitamin and mineral supplements could be helpful for senior adults with memory impairments who have a deficiency:
Remember, these supplements are meant to augment or support your loved one’s diet, not replace it. You cannot “boost” the immune system or restore cognitive function just by taking higher doses of essential vitamins; excessive supplementation can run the risk of vitamin toxicity. If possible, it’s always best to prevent memory loss through diets that have been proven to be effective for individuals with memory impairments, and be sure to consult a physician before beginning any vitamin regimen.
oil is extracted from fatty and oily fish, including mackerel, salmon, and
sardines. It contains omega-3 fatty acids. Taking a fish oil supplement can
help individuals get the nutritional benefits of omega-3 fatty acids if they
are unable to eat fatty fish.
Fish oil has a variety of purported benefits, but it could be helpful in promoting brain health. Many studies have determined that fish oil supplementation is not as beneficial as eating fish, but some senior adults have found success when using it to improve memory. Another study found that while fish oil was ineffective for moderate and severe memory loss, it did have positive impacts on subjects with mild Alzheimer’s disease.
Glucosamine is a natural sugar found in human cartilage. Glucosamine supplements are often used to promote joint health, but it could also be useful for supporting cognitive functioning. One study found that glucosamine helped improve spatial learning and memory in rats and suggests that it could have uses in preventing or treating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Many herbs and plants have medicinal properties that may be beneficial for improving memory, increasing cognitive function, and maintaining brain health. Some herbs that could be particularly useful for memory impairments include:
Herbs and botanicals may be natural, but they can still have profound and powerful impacts on the body. Some, such as St. John’s wort, can render medications ineffective or cause severe side effects. Always consult with a medical professional before suggesting any herbal supplements to a senior adult.
While there are many false claims of anti-aging supplements, some compounds may be an effective way to reduce the effects that aging has on cognition and brain health:
It’s worth noting that, while these compounds do have promising benefits for cognitive functioning, the research is still in its infancy. Further study is necessary to determine exactly how beneficial these anti-aging supplements can be for memory-impaired senior adults.
As an aging adult, you should always talk to your primary care provider before making any changes to your diet or before starting a care plan. However, if you’re looking for more information, there are plenty of resources available that can offer additional guidance and support for you, your family members, and your caregivers.
Consult the following resources for more information on how to live with and manage a memory disorder:
To help support an aging family member or someone with a memory disorder, please peruse the following resources: