Dementia and Nutrition
Updated: Sep 18
In 2023, it is estimated that more than 400,000 Australians are living with dementia. Without a medical breakthrough, it is expected that the number of people living with dementia would increase to more than 800,000 by 2058. People living with dementia can experience various dietary related issues which can arise due to a progressive decline in the person’s memory, planning, thinking and judgement.
Let us find out more about Dementia from our Dietitians.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a term used to describe a group of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain. It is not one specific disease, and it results from various underlying causes. It is progressive and it worsens over time, often interfering with one's ability to function independently in their daily life.
Types of dementia
There are many causes of Dementia, and each has its own characteristics. The four most common form of dementia are:
Results from physical damage in the brain caused by an accumulation of amyloid (protein) plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain.
Results from a decrease in blood flow to the brain due to stroke or other problems affecting blood vessels.
Lewy Body Dementia
Results from the presence of Lewy bodies (abnormal protein deposits) in the brain.
Results from progressive damage to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.
Who can be affected by dementia?
Dementia can affect anyone, and it depends on a combination of age, genes, health, and lifestyle. But generally, the risk increases as an individual age.
Under 65 years old, can develop dementia (termed ‘younger onset dementia’), however this is much less common.
Above 65 years old, dementia affects almost 1 in 10 people .
Above 85 years old, dementia affects 3 in 10 people.
Dietary problems associated with those with dementia
Those with dementia may experience various dietary problems as their dementia advances due to a progressive decline in cognition. These could range from difficulties with chewing and swallowing, to poor appetite or overeating.
Loss of appetite
A decrease in appetite can be caused by forgetting how to chew or swallow, misfit dentures, inadequate physical activity, difficulties with self-feeding and feeling embarrassed by requiring help from others to be fed.
Difficulties with eating / swallowing
Some common eating problems could be related to the mouth which includes having a ‘dry mouth’ or experiencing discomfort in the mouth from gum disease or having dentures that do not fit properly.
Changes in food preferences
Sense of taste and smell may change in people living with dementia which changes the way they experience flavour. Some may develop a preference for strong-flavoured food that is either sweet or salty while others may enjoy unusual flavour combinations, such as mixing savoury and sweet foods. As the condition progresses, some might experience a change in their mood such as feeling depressed or having anxiety and may find comfort in having sweet foods.
Undereating, overeating or insatiable appetite
Undereating or overeating could result from either forgetting that they have eaten recently, or it could be due to concerns about when they would receive their next meal. Whereas an insatiable appetite could result from being obsessed with specific foods or meals.
6 Nutrition Tips for someone with dementia
Offer meals at regular mealtimes each day. If the person refuses to eat meals at regular mealtimes or at a table, offer finger foods that they can snack on.
Serve meals one course at a time and encourage completing all or most of one food before moving on to the next as people with dementia can become confused when flavours and textures change.
Offer regular drinks of water, juice, or other fluids such as milk, milo, and milkshakes to prevent dehydration as most people with dementia often forget to drink or are unable to recognise the sensation of thirst.
Moisten food with gravy and sauces and offer small bites to increase tolerance of foods.
Ensure table settings such as crockery and tablecloths are plain with a different colour from the food being served. Remove distracting items from the table e.g., extra cutlery and glasses, and items that may be mistaken for food.
Ensure there is adequate lighting and keep noise and activities in the dining area to a minimum.
Finger Foods are great for people with dementia
Finger foods are foods that can be eaten easily by hand. There is substantial evidence indicating that though introducing more finger foods for people with dementia, consumption of meals significantly increases.
Our NEW Finger food recipe book is coming soon. Register your interest here
Finger foods should provide a variety of nutrients necessary for health and wellbeing, while encouraging independence in eating. The safety and ease of handling the foods should also be considered.
EXAMPLES OF FINGER FOODS
Vegetables: cooked al dente, e.g., broccoli pieces, carrot sticks, green beans, and baby corn.
Meat: quiches, terrines and meatloaf, hardboiled eggs, meatballs/ patties
Fruits: melons, kiwi fruit or banana cut into finger sized pieces
Dairy: cheese slices or cubes, cheese or yoghurt-based dips with crackers, toast fingers or soft vegetables sticks
Grain (cereal) foods/ Desserts: Sandwiches with fillings that will not fall out, pikelets, pancakes, scones or banana bread, carrot cake, tarts, firm custards.
How to minimise the risk of dementia?
There is no guaranteed way currently to prevent dementia. However, there are several dietary and lifestyle changes that one can make to reduce their risk of developing dementia or delaying the onset of the symptoms.
1. Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet
A healthy and balanced diet is important for maintaining a healthy body weight. Being overweight and over-consuming foods can increase the risk of developing dementia. Adhering to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating would ensure your diet is rich in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids that can help protect your brain.
2. Limiting alcohol intake
Excessive alcohol intake overtime can contribute to brain damage and produce symptoms of dementia. It is important to have no more than two standard drinks* on any one day, and at least two alcohol-free days per week. *A standard drink is any alcoholic drink that contains 10 grams of pure alcohol.
3. Stop smoking
Smoking affects the brain and heart. It also increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer which would increase your risk of developing dementia.
4. Engaging in regular physical activity
Engaging in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity at least five days a week and muscle strengthening activities twice a week helps keep the brain healthy and improves memory and thinking.
6. Look after your hearing & other senses
People with severe hearing loss are five times more likely to develop dementia than people with normal hearing. Therefore, precautions should be taken to prevent and minimise hearing loss. In addition, there has been an association found between vision impairment and dementia. Hence, regular eye examinations should be conducted to check the health of your eyes.
7. Maintain healthy sleep patterns
Sleep is crucial for maintaining alertness, mood, and cognition. There has been an increase in evidence that experiencing sleep disturbances can increase the risk of developing depression, cognitive problems, and dementia later in life. In general, adults should aim to have at least 7–8 hours of sleep.
8. Keeping the brain active
Keeping the brain stimulated and active by engaging in mental stimulating activities and new learning is extremely important for our cognitive health and they are linked to reduce the risk of dementia.
How can a Dietitian help someone with dementia?
Our Accredited Practising Dietitians can assist to ensure your loved ones with dementia are meeting their nutritional requirements.
A Dietitian will be able to assess the individual's current nutritional status, note their dietary habits, preferences, and specific dietary needs related to their stage of dementia to provide nutritional guidance and support to improve their overall quality of life.
A Dietitian will work closely with the Speech Pathologist’s recommendations to support food of the appropriate textures and consistencies. This is to minimise any risks related to swallowing and chewing while still ensuring the individual receives adequate nutrition. A doctor should also be involved if choking problems develop or a dentist if it’s related to poor dentition.
A Dietitian can provide support to caregivers through educating them on the ways to prepare a balanced and nutritious meal that are appealing to the person with dementia.
To reach out to one of our Accredited Practising Dietitians from OSCAR Care Group for personalised support, please call (03) 9560 1844.
Through Dementia Australia, there is a national Dementia Helpline which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This free telephone service provides information and advice for people living with Dementia and their families.
National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500