Keto Diet Shows Potential in Slowing Alzheimer’s Memory Decline

John Clarke

Written by John Clarke


The ketogenic diet has recently come under scientific scrutiny for its potential to combat neurodegenerative diseases, particularly Alzheimer’s. A groundbreaking study using mice models suggests that this high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet could slow the progression of cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s. Researchers are particularly interested in the diet’s ability to increase beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) molecules, which have been linked to protection against neuroinflammation—a key contributor to Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite these promising findings in mice, there is a clear need for human studies. The pathology of Alzheimer’s in mice does not fully replicate the complexity of the human condition, thus making it difficult to ascertain if the same effects would be observed in people. However, the study, which involved genetically modified APP/PS1 mice, an established model of Alzheimer’s disease, has certainly paved the way for further exploration. These mice, when placed on a ketogenic diet, showed a delayed onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms compared to those on a standard diet.

BHB is not only seen in mice; it’s also present in humans and associated with delaying the onset of mild cognitive dementia. Produced during the body’s fat burning process for energy, BHB feeds the mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells. Interestingly, a study by UC Davis previously found BHB’s anti-inflammatory effects on human brain cells, suggesting a potential therapeutic avenue for neuroinflammation-related conditions.

Debunking Beta-Amyloid Plaques as the Sole Cause of Alzheimer’s

For many years, beta-amyloid plaques were thought to be the main cause of Alzheimer’s disease. However, this theory has been largely discredited, leading researchers to look for alternative explanations and potential treatments. The ketogenic diet has become one such area of interest due to its impact on BHB levels and the body’s inflammatory response.

In the study, modified mice were raised on a standard diet and then separated into groups, with some controlled for a ketogenic diet while others continued with the standard diet. One notable finding was that female mice had higher BHB levels and an increase in memory-supporting brain enzymes. Additionally, male mice on the ketogenic diet showed improved spatial memory, suggesting a potential sex-specific response to the diet. This research was published in Nature Communications Biology and has since sparked discussions about the implications of diet on cognitive health.

Understanding the Ketogenic Diet and Its Mechanisms

Nutritionist Michelle Routhenstein defines the ketogenic diet as a high-fat, low-carbohydrate regimen that induces a state of ketosis in the body. During ketosis, the body burns fat for fuel, producing ketone bodies like BHB. The diet’s ability to alter energy sources for the brain has intrigued researchers, especially since BHB has shown anti-inflammatory effects. However, the diet’s impact on neuroinflammation has been a concern, raising questions about whether it could promote rather than protect against inflammation.

Contrary to these concerns, the study observed a significant reduction in systemic inflammatory cytokines in mice on the ketogenic diet. This suggests that certain fats, when chosen carefully, can have neuroprotective elements, potentially guarding against inflammation and oxidative stress. Nevertheless, excessive consumption of saturated fats, which can be a risk on a poorly managed ketogenic diet, could raise cholesterol and cardiovascular risk.

Navigating the Risks and Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet

Adopting a long-term ketogenic diet may also lead to nutrient deficiencies, which could negatively affect heart and gut health. It’s important to ensure balanced nutrition to mitigate potential harms. For instance, individuals might consider increasing their intake of certain fats that are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, while avoiding or limiting those that could contribute to cardiovascular issues.

Interestingly, BHB levels are not solely influenced by the ketogenic diet. They rise after fasting and can also be elevated by supplements or by adopting a one-meal-a-day diet that’s low in carbohydrates. The key is to achieve a state of ketosis, which can be done through various dietary approaches.

Given the significant changes a ketogenic diet imposes on one’s lifestyle and the potential risks involved, it’s highly recommended to consult with a physician before making any drastic dietary changes. This is particularly important for individuals with pre-existing health conditions or those on medication.

Translating Animal Studies to Human Health

While the findings from mouse studies are promising, they are not directly transferable to humans without further research. The Alzheimer’s Association has emphasized the need for human studies to better understand the potential benefits and risks of the ketogenic diet in the context of Alzheimer’s prevention or treatment. They caution against adopting the ketogenic diet specifically for Alzheimer’s without medical advice and comprehensive understanding of an individual’s health profile.

One of the eagerly awaited studies that may shed light on the role of lifestyle interventions, including diet, on cognitive function is the U.S. POINTER trial. Set to publish results in 2025, this trial is investigating the effects of lifestyle interventions on the cognitive function decline in older adults at risk of cognitive impairment. Until then, the scientific community remains cautiously optimistic and advocates for evidence-based approaches to diet and Alzheimer’s disease.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Alzheimer’s Prevention and Treatment

As research continues to evolve, the potential role of the ketogenic diet in Alzheimer’s disease remains an area of great interest. The current evidence from animal studies offers a glimmer of hope and a basis for further investigation into how dietary interventions could contribute to the prevention or treatment of this devastating disease. As we await the results of human trials, it’s important for individuals to make informed decisions about their health and diet, preferably under the guidance of healthcare professionals. The journey to understanding and combating Alzheimer’s disease is undoubtedly complex, but with each new study, we move closer to unlocking the mysteries of cognitive health.