Can the Ketogenic Diet Prevent, Delay, or Help Treat Dementia?
You may have heard that research is looking into how a ketogenic diet and dementia are linked. In a good way.
Dementia, which is the decline of memory, problem-solving, language skills, and other forms of thinking that is sometimes associated with aging, is on the rise.
It’s a tragic condition, but also costly for families, healthcare providers, and governments.
However, some scientists speculate that many dementia cases may be preventable, and that diet and nutrition may be key factors for better brain health during aging.
And a new peer-reviewed scientific review on the ketogenic diet and dementia suggests that a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet may be a useful tool for delaying or even preventing age-related cognitive decline.
Keep reading to learn how the keto diet may help prevent dementia, plus practical takeaways to keep your brain healthy as you grow older.
The ketogenic diet (“keto diet” or just “keto” for short) is a low-carbohydrate diet that puts your body in a state of ketosis.
When you go keto by reducing your carbohydrate intake, your body produces ketone bodies, high-energy molecules with numerous health benefits (and most notably for the purposes of this discussion, brain health benefits).
And along with ensuring ketone production during ketosis, the absence of carbohydrates also reverses risk factors like insulin resistance, which may reduce the odds of chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s disease (which some researchers refer to as “Type 3 diabetes”)[*][*].
Dementia is a broad term for the neurocognitive effects of aging that sometimes result in cognitive decline, memory loss, and loss of thinking skills.
Importantly, not everyone gets dementia during the aging process. And because it’s an “umbrella term,” not all forms of dementia are alike.
For example, Alzheimer’s dementia is one type of dementia, but the severity of dementia can vary. And not all forms of dementia progress at the same rate, either.
But scientists and doctors sometimes group the various types of dementia together for the following reasons[*]:
- The causes of dementia are not fully understood
- Dementia is often diagnosed according to symptoms
- Determining the nature of an individual case of dementia may be difficult
So, what’s latest info on keto and the prevention and treatment of dementia? Read on to find out.
The new paper, published in January of 2020 in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, is called Ketogenic Diet for the Treatment and Prevention of Dementia: A Review.
A research review is different from a study or clinical trial.
Whereas studies or clinical trials perform new science in the lab or by recruiting human participants, reviews are a type of peer-reviewed paper where researchers examine existing science to draw data-backed conclusions.
In this article, you’ll get the main takeaways from the review.
Medical Uses for Keto and Rationale for Dementia
The researchers begin their examination by discussing the proven, evidence-based medical uses of keto, which include:
- Epileptic seizure control
- Weight loss and obesity treatment
- Type 2 diabetes treatment and managing blood sugar levels
- Enhancing insulin sensitivity
- Improving blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides)
- Increasing mitochondrial function (the “powerhouses of the cell”)
- Decreasing systemic inflammation
Then they go on to discuss the promising, preliminary evidence or anecdotal reports for several other medical conditions:
- Gastric cancer
- Brain cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Parkinson disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Multiple sclerosis
And according to the researchers, some of the benefits mentioned above may have carryover to dementia patients, including:
- Increased mitochondrial function
- Enhanced insulin sensitivity
- Weight loss
- Decreased inflammation
- Reduced glycation (formation of secondary byproducts from sugars)
All of these keto benefits may be helpful mechanisms in preventing, delaying, or decreasing dementia symptoms.
Other Ways Keto Might Help in Dementia
As the popularity of keto has increased, so has the amount of credible scientific research validating the diet. And with every year, more potential mechanisms or benefits become clear.
Some of the more recent findings associated with the keto diet could also have positive effects regarding dementia:
- Decreased oxidative stress
- Ketones acting as an alternative energy source for brain cells (essentially a type of brain fuel)
- Gut microbiome alterations from keto might help prevent or reduce dementia symptoms
- Keto might alter neurotransmitters like GABA and glutamate, improving brain function
And now that you’ve got a clear picture in mind of possible mechanisms, keep reading to learn the results of recent studies on keto and dementia in humans.
Human Trials in Keto and Dementia
Although the 2020 paper did not include any new data, the authors did review a number of randomized controlled trials examining the effects of keto in dementia patients, or patients with similar issues, such as mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Impressively, the trials all showed some form of improvement in dementia symptoms.
Most of them used a form of ketogenic supplements, like medium-chain triglycerides (MCT oil) or beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB).
The reason supplements are the most common approach currently is because it’s difficult to get older adults with cognitive impairment to follow a strict diet like keto.
That said, MCT oil or BHB still appear to work well for dementia patients, with or without carb restriction.
Side Effects of Keto
The review found that the most common side effects of the ketogenic diet were related to digestion.
Constipation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and hunger topped the list. Some people also experienced fatigue.
MCT oil also caused an upset stomach in some patients, but slowly adjusting (titrating) the dose upward appeared to reduce this effect. Also, some research indicates MCT oil powder is easier to digest than the liquid form.
While most side effects were not serious, people with medical conditions still require monitoring by a doctor or other qualified healthcare professional when starting keto.
Overall, to sum up the findings of the review, here’s what the current research on keto and dementia says:
The keto diet is probably effective for preventing, delaying, and managing dementia, but more human trials that are larger and last longer will give us a clearer picture.
But in the meantime, it’s fairly certain that keto is safe and worth a try, whether or not you have dementia.
For an easy-to-understand overview of the ketogenic diet and how to get started, check out The Ketogenic Diet: A Beginner’s Guide to Low-Carb Keto Diet.
Are you wondering what you can and can’t eat on keto? Take a look at Keto Diet Foods: The Full Ketogenic Diet Food List, our Low Carb Food List (It’s Printable!), and Which Foods to Avoid on the Keto Diet.
Or get started now with The Ultimate Three-Day Ketogenic Diet Meal Plan.
And if you aren’t quite ready to commit to cutting carbs yet, you can consider ketogenic supplements like MCT oil or BHB to increase your ketone levels for many of the same benefits.
Also, if you or a loved one are considering keto for dementia, it’s wise to consult your doctor first.
And if you currently take medication, have a medical condition, or are pregnant or nursing, definitely speak to your doctor before you change your diet or take a new supplement.
A nutritionist or dietitian can also help you get started with the keto diet safely as well as ensure you reach ketosis.
Current evidence suggests keto may be effective for preventing, delaying, and managing dementia.
However, larger, longer human trials will give us more information in the future.
Fortunately, because the keto diet is exceptionally safe and has other health benefits when implemented properly, you can try it on your own now — there’s no need to wait for more evidence.
Whether your goal is weight loss, better cognitive function, or other keto benefits, there’s a good chance that going keto will enhance your health and wellness.
And if you don’t feel like cutting carbs just yet, you can always try MCT oil, MCT oil powder, or exogenous ketones to experience some of the benefits of going keto before you dive in fully.