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Japan’s transition to a Western diet has increased their risk of Alzheimer’s disease has long held to the old adage, “you are what you eat.” The statement has been sadly illustrated right here in America. As the proliferation of processed foods and beverages in our national diet has become dramatically apparent, so have our levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease risen sharply. There may be some who consider the correlation a coincidence, but it really is too striking to brush aside. While our diets here in the U.S. have changed, so have the diets of other countries around the world. Japan is no exception. And now, new research is linking a significant increase in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in Japan to changes in their national diet.

The prevalence of AD for those aged 65+ years in Japan rose from 1% in 1985 to 7% in 2008. The prevalence of another major type of dementia, vascular dementia, was nearly constant at 4-5% during the same period.

Previous studies identified a number of risk factors for AD for which values in midlife or 15-30 years prior to diagnosis of AD are predictive: alcohol consumption, elevated cholesterol, diabetes mellitus, dietary fat, obesity, and smoking are associated with increased risk while physical fitness is associated with reduced risk.

In an effort to determine what might be the cause of this dramatic rise in AD prevalence, an investigation of dietary changes in Japan was undertaken. Data for dietary supply were obtained from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The largest changes between 1961 and 1985 included alcohol consumption which doubled during that time frame, animal fat consumption which increased from about 11 lbs. per person per year to about 77 lbs per person per year, and meat consumption (from almost 17 lbs per person per year to about 126 lbs. per person per year. Values for most of these factors have changed only modestly since 1985.

Thus, this study suggests that the nutrition transition in Japan, i.e., switching from the traditional Japanese diet with 15% of the energy derived from animal products and 42% from rice towards the Western diet, is associated with the rapid rise in AD prevalence in Japan. Unless the dietary pattern in Japan returns to the traditional Japanese diet, AD rates in Japan will not decrease.

The important message from this study is that AD rates globally are strongly linked to diet, especially in midlife, and that unless per capita consumption of animal products and total energy is reduced, AD rates will continue to remain high.

So continues to see the real life illustrations of “you are what you eat.” Diets are changing worldwide and the health effects on populations around the globe are becoming increasingly apparent. It is our own nutritional awareness that will continue to help us stay committed to healthier lifestyles that can lower our risks for degenerative diseases that can drastically reduce our quality of life as we age.


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