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January 17, 2024

How a Low-Carb Diet Could Slow Alzheimer’s Disease Progression

by Jennifer Bramen

Are you concerned about Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and looking for ways to safeguard your brain health? Traditional treatments have their limits, but what if the key to slowing down AD lies in your diet? We’ve conducted research aimed at exploring the potential benefits of a carbohydrate-restricted diet for AD patients, and the findings are promising. This diet is lower in carbohydrates than the Standard American Diet, but not so low in carbohydrates that you need to eliminate your favorite foods. 

Carbohydrates and Alzheimer’s Disease 

Before we dive into the study’s findings, it’s important to understand the connection between carbohydrates and AD. Brain cells depend on insulin to use glucose effectively. When insulin resistance sets in, as it often does with older age and AD, it can lead to cognitive decline. Both AD and type 2 diabetes share common mechanisms, including impaired insulin signaling. Lowering blood sugar and insulin levels could also help clear harmful Aβ peptides (amyloid buildup) that contribute to AD. Eating fewer carbohydrates results in lower overall blood sugar. 

The Study 

In our paper titled “Impact of Eating a Carbohydrate-Restricted Diet on Cortical Atrophy in a Cross-Section of Amyloid Positive Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease: a Small Sample Study,” we divided AD patients with confirmed amyloid burden into two groups: those on a low-carb diet (the lower carb group) and those on a moderate-to-high carb diet.  

A Thicker Cortex 

Participants in the lower carb group had thicker cortex regions in primary and secondary visual and somatomotor networks. This means their brains showed less thinning, a hallmark of AD. Even after accounting for factors like age, sex, education, and BMI, these differences held. 

Continuous Benefits? 

We also explored the relationship between carb intake and cortical thickness on a continuum. The results were even more impressive. The lower the carb intake, the thicker the cortex, particularly in the frontoparietal, cingulo-opercular, and visual networks. These are crucial brain regions for memory and cognitive function, and they seemed to be healthier when participants ate generally less carbs. 

What It Means 

In essence, our study suggests that a carbohydrate-restricted diet, with daily intake under 130 grams of net carbohydrates, may help preserve brain health in AD patients. The brains of those following this diet appeared more resilient, especially in areas associated with AD. While it’s not a cure, it’s a promising avenue for slowing down the disease’s progression. A carbohydrate-restricted diet, particularly one following the brain-healthy MIND diet guidelines, might offer hope in the fight against cognitive decline. 

A Note of Caution 

It’s important to acknowledge the limitations of our study. The sample size was small, and the participants were primarily well-educated, which could limit generalizability. We also relied on self-reported dietary information, and our study was cross-sectional (the outcome and the exposures are measured at the same time). More research is needed with larger groups and longer timeframes. 

Supporting Change 

To achieve optimal outcomes, consider professional support. Making changes to your eating habits can be daunting, and health coaches can break these into small, achievable steps. If you are curious, consider contacting Dr. Karen Miller, Senior Director of the Brain Wellness & Lifestyle Program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute®(PNI®) in Santa Monica. Her team of coaches can create a custom plan to improve your brain health through diet and other brain healthy habits. 

>>See story on ABC7 news

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About the Author

Jennifer Bramen PhD

Jennifer Bramen

Jennifer Bramen, PhD, is a Senior Research Scientist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute Foundation. She works alongside clinician-scientists at the Pacific Brain Health Center to bridge the gap between the translational research pipeline and full clinical implementation. Dr. Bramen is also spearheading the Pacific Neuroscience Institute Foundation’s Neuroimaging Core, which provides neuroimaging-based biomarkers for clinical trials research.

Last updated: April 23rd, 2024