The power of food in living well with dementia

September 9, 2016

Understanding the health and social benefits of food and nutrition in the care of people with dementia is vital, writes Ngarie Hobbins.

During Dementia Awareness Month I want to encourage carers, health practitioners, those involved in residential and community care and anyone living with a dementia diagnosis to pay attention to the power of eating and to not underestimate the vital importance of appropriate nutrition advice for those living with dementia.

Ngarie Hobbins

The message during this Dementia Awareness Month is around the impact of loneliness for those living with dementia and the people who care about them. Loneliness not only reduces quality of life and further impacts cognition because people miss out on the benefits available from social connection; but importantly from my point of view, lonely people often do not eat well.  This problem is compounded because far too often the power of nutrition to not only enrich quality of life, but to also maintain the health and independence of those living with that diagnosis, is overlooked.

Nearly half of all people diagnosed with dementia have already lost weight in the year prior to that diagnosis. If that is allowed to continue unchallenged, it can accelerate cognitive decline, along with contributing to poor health through the impact of weight and body muscle loss at older age on immunity, body organ maintenance, wound repair and more. The resulting loss of physical capacity can then too easily precipitate a move into assisted care before advancing cognitive issues would otherwise require that.  I want to see that avoided at all costs.

My book Eat To Cheat Dementia, released earlier in 2016, has two purposes: in it I present the science of nutrition, brain health and what we know so far about eating to help prevent dementia, in language for the everyday reader. But possibly dearer to my heart, I also address the unique needs of people living with a dementia diagnosis, providing sensible, practical strategies and guidance to help them, and the people who care about or for them, enjoy independence and quality of life in the years ahead.

One thing discussed in the book is my strong belief, based on clinical experience, that just because someone is not eating the food or meals offered to them, it must not be assumed that they are not hungry. This is an essential understanding for those who provide meals for, or who care about someone diagnosed with dementia. Lost or mixed up brain connections can make shopping for food, preparing it and managing to get if from plate to stomach challenging, but it doesn’t necessarily mean an individual is not hungry. Appetite can certainly be an issue, but there are plenty of strategies, including using treat foods, that can help get around that.

Ngaire Hobbins is a dietitian in ageing and brain health.



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