Low-Carb ‘Keto’ Diet May Improve Brain Function And Memory In Older Adults by xx for Natural Blaze
In a pilot study of 14 older adults with mild cognitive problems suggestive of early Alzheimer’s disease, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers report that a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet may improve brain function and memory.
Although the researchers say that finding participants willing to undertake restrictive diets for the three-month study — or partners willing to help them stick to those diets — was challenging, those who adhered to a modified Atkins diet (very low carbohydrates and extra fat) had small but measurable improvements on standardized tests of memory compared with those on a low-fat diet.
The short-term results, published in the April issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, are far from proof that the modified Atkins diet has the potential to stave off progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. However, they are promising enough, the researchers say, to warrant larger, longer-term studies of dietary impact on brain function.
“Our early findings suggest that perhaps we don’t need to cut carbs as strictly as we initially tried. We may eventually see the same beneficial effects by adding a ketone supplement that would make the diet easier to follow,” says Jason Brandt, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Most of all, if we can confirm these preliminary findings, using dietary changes to mitigate cognitive loss in early-stage dementia would be a real game-changer. It’s something that 400-plus experimental drugs haven’t been able to do in clinical trials.”
Brandt explains that, typically, the brain uses the sugar glucose — a product of carbohydrate breakdown — as a primary fuel. However, research has shown that in the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease the brain isn’t able to efficiently use glucose as an energy source. Some experts, he says, even refer to Alzheimer’s as “type 3 diabetes.”
Using brain scans that show energy use, researchers have also found that ketones — chemicals formed during the breakdown of dietary fat — can be used as an alternative energy source in the brains of healthy people and those with mild cognitive impairment. For example, when a person is on a ketogenic diet, consisting of lots of fat and very few sugars and starches, the brain and body use ketones as an energy source instead of carbs.
For the current study, the researchers wanted to see if people with mild cognitive impairment, often an indicator of developing Alzheimer’s disease, would benefit from a diet that forced the brain to use ketones instead of carbohydrates for fuel.
After 2 1/2 years of recruitment efforts, the researchers were able to enroll 27 people in the 12-week diet study. There were a few dropouts, and so far, 14 participants have completed the study. The participants were an average age of 71. Half were women, and all but one were white.
To enroll, each participant required a study partner (typically a spouse) who was responsible for ensuring that the participant followed one of two diets for the full 12 weeks. Nine participants followed a modified Atkins diet meant to restrict carbs to 20 grams per day or less, with no restriction on calories.