Does Intermittent Fasting Slow Cognitive Decline?

Q. My father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Similar to many who have been given such a devastating diagnosis, we’d like to do what we can to slow the cognitive decline for as long as possible. I read somewhere that intermittent fasting has been shown to reduce brain inflammation. Is this a diet that can also help delay the progression of Alzheimer’s? Thanks for your help!

A. As you are likely aware, Alzheimer’s disease is an incurable degenerative disease that is common among older adults, with an estimated 5.8 million Americans living with it. As the disease progresses, symptoms include memory loss, changes in behavior, and problems thinking and remembering things, as the parts of the brain responsible for memory are adversely affected by plaques and tangles. Plaques are abnormal clusters of protein fragments that build up between nerve cells. Dead and dying nerve cells contain tangles, which are made up of twisted strands of another protein.

Scientists believe that plaques and tangles wreak havoc on the brain, killing cells and disrupting normal brain functions as they spread. What exactly causes these plaques and tangles to develop, and why people with them get Alzheimer’s disease, is still being studied. For more information about plaques and tangles, check out this page from the Alzheimer’s Association.

Alzheimer’s Is Treatable, But There Is No Cure

There are a handful of drugs that can ease the memory loss symptoms of Alzheimer’s (such as Aricept and Exelon), and one new controversial drug (Aduhelm) was recently approved to slow the disease’s progression. While none offer a cure, one approach, outside the realm of drugs and medications, is quickly showing some strong potential for treatment — intermittent fasting.

Intermittent fasting, something I have practiced regularly for years, is commonly used as a diet not just for weight loss but for a host of other beneficial outcomes, including improved metabolism and reduced inflammation that occurs with many types of diseases. Some who partake in this type of diet fast one or two days a week or limit the hours of the day in which they eat. One of the most common intermittent fasting protocols is the 16/8 method: which basically just involves skipping breakfast and restricting your daily eating period to eight hours, such as noon to 8 p.m., fasting for the 16 hours in between, from 8 p.m. until 12 noon. (This version of the intermittent fasting diet is very easy to accomplish for most people, so long as you rid your mind of the inaccurate marketing ploy foisted on recent generations telling us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, which has been proven false.) Another common intermittent fasting protocol involves skipping breakfast and lunch and only eating during a four-hour window each day. Intermittent fasting can alter metabolism and lead to weight loss over time. What many don’t realize is that intermittent fasting is a possible way to improve learning and memory, for those who already have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Studies Show Promise When It Comes to Intermittent Fasting and Alzheimer’s Prevention

Recent studies of intermittent fasting have shown benefits in many chronic disorders including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers, and neurodegenerative diseases. Studies on animals have also shown that intermittent fasting enhances cognition in several areas of memory and learning and can even slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. These are some important findings from researchers:

  • Intermittent fasting in animal studies has also been shown to reduce brain inflammation.
  • The most widely studied intermittent fasting regimens were alternate-day fasting, 5:2 fasting (fasting two days per week), and daily time-restricted eating.
  • There is strong evidence that forms of intermittent fasting can delay the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease in animals.
  • In animal studies, intermittent fasting has been shown to increase longevity, improve cognitive function, and reduce brain plaque as compared with animals fed a regular diet.
  • Scientists believe that intermittent fasting enables cells to remove damaged proteins.
  • Scientists hypothesize that the metabolic switch from glucose to ketone bodies plays a major role in brain health and longevity and also plays a role in slowing Alzheimer’s progression.
  • Researchers are now exploring opportunities to study intermittent fasting in humans, particularly the effect this might have on neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.

In a review of intermittent fasting research in the New England Journal of Medicine, intermittent fasting showed promise in animal models for a wide range of chronic disorders. Here’s how it works: Scientists have found that our bodies predominantly use glucose produced by the food we eat for fuel. But when we fast, the body turns to alternate energy sources including fat. Fat metabolism leads to the production of ketone bodies which have been linked to improved thinking, learning, and memory in animal studies. The conclusion was that calorie restriction in animals increases life span, improves cognition, and can even reverse the effects of obesity, diabetes, and brain inflammation.

A Current Study Is Occurring at USC

Valter Longo, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California, has spent decades studying the link between aging, fasting, and its impact on slowing the progression of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Longo recently kicked off a study of 120 patients who have been diagnosed with either Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment. He’s using a variation of a fasting diet that’s less drastic, though it mimics the essential effects of an intermittent fasting diet.

So far, he’s seen slower cognitive decline and increased longevity in mice on fasting diets. He is currently undertaking tests in humans.

Don’t Try Intermittent Fasting Without the Guidance of a Physician

Researchers caution against trying intermittent fasting on your own. “A sudden change to intermittent fasting might negatively impact your health if you are a diabetic or have other medical issues,” said Dr. Allan Anderson, MD, Director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Tucson. “It’s important to consult your doctor before making any changes to your routine and take on the change gradually.”

Besides intermittent fasting, Dr. David Perlmutter, a Board-Certified Neurologist and five-time New York Times bestselling author, recently published an article on the effectiveness of keto diets for Alzheimer’s patients. Please read my article, “Keto Diet for Alzheimer’s? Critics Disagree on Whether it’s Healthy and Effective” for more details.

It is hoped that intermittent fasting and other diet modifications will show promise in more testing on humans in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Medicaid Asset Protection for Alzheimer’s or Other Forms of Dementia

Do you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia? Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect your assets while maintaining your comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. Please call us when you are ready to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Alzheimer’s Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Alzheimer’s Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Alzheimer’s Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Alzheimer’s Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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