If you are currently caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, you know that meal time can be a struggle. When it comes to eating habits and preferences, dementia patients often exhibit significant changes. From appetite to taste, meal time needs to match the needs of patients with Alzheimer’s.
How Does Alzheimer’s Influence Eating?
As humans, we go through life, enjoying food, as well as the social gatherings associated with meal time. Unfortunately, once diagnosed with dementia, a number of changes begin to occur. This is based on emotional, physical and behavioral factors, which change as an individual’s condition progresses.
As the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease worsen, this can influence one’s relationship with food and drink. This is why caregivers need to get creative, as balanced nutrition is of the utmost importance. Some of the most common problems include:
- A loss of appetite — There are many reasons why individuals will begin to reduce their intake of food, including poor communication skills based on their condition, depression, pain, fatigue, or even due to their medication.
- Reduced recognition — In many cases, individuals will not longer recognize food and drink. This is when food presentation and encouragement play a major role. Individuals may also lack the recognition of thirst, so dehydration can often be an area of concern.
- Changes in motor skills — From using cutlery to one’s ability to swallow, individuals with dementia suffer from poor co-ordination and often reduced motor function.
These are just some of the ways in which Alzheimer’s patients struggle with meals and in the case of food preference, their taste buds may play a key role.
The Taste Buds of Alzheimer’s Patients
Although we often focus on the more obvious symptoms of dementia — being memory loss and confusion, it’s important to highlight some of the less obvious changes. This, of course, includes eating habits and food preferences. When understanding key variables, caregivers can make nutrition a priority.
Taste and smell impairments among dementia patients has been recognized since the 1980s. Since then, a vast amount of research has been developed. As you’d expect, once changes occur in the brain, sensory symptoms often follow. In this case, brain changes lead to changes in appetite and taste preference.
The connection between brain changes and eating habits was documented in one study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. The researchers studied three groups of patients — those with frontal variant frontotemporal dementia (fv-FTD), those with semantic dementia, and those with Alzheimer’s.
Except for swallowing, the frequency of all domains (appetite changes, food preference, oral behaviors, and eating habits) was higher among fv-FTD patients in comparison to Alzheimer’s patients. While focusing on those with semantic dementia, changes in food preferences and eating habits were also greater among this group in comparison to Alzheimer’s patients.
It was concluded that these changes likely reflect changes in the ventral frontal lobe, temporal pole, and amygdala. So, depending on the type of dementia and severity, individuals may display unique symptoms related to eating and overall food preferences.
In severe cases, you hear of patients eating rotten food — but more commonly, cravings change. In particular, patients often increase their preference for sweets. For some, this can act as an early warning sign. So, as a caregiver, how do you overcome these barriers?
- Cut down on refined grains and sugars, focusing on fresh whole foods. Offer balanced meals that include vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and fruit. For those who are within the later stages, if appetite loss is significant, you may need to add a little sugar on food to encourage eating.
- Cut down on salt and fatty foods. While caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, you want to protect all aspects of their health, including their blood glucose levels, cholesterol and blood pressure. Use more heart-healthy oils, including olive, coconut and avocado. Instead of relying on salt to season food, cook with more herbs and spices.
- Encourage a high intake of fluids — do not let dehydration become an issue, as this can increase confusion. You can also offer smoothies throughout the day.
- Make eating an easier process, but limiting distractions, maintaining a clean table, make food easy to see based on visual and spatial changes, and only serve 1-2 foods at a time.
- Whenever possible, encourage independence — whether that means serving healthy finger foods or altering the serving dishes/utensils used.
- Address changes in appetite. As we know, changes in taste preferences can influence eating habits, but so can medications. If you’re concerned about the medications being taken, consult with a physician — especially if the patient begins to lose weight.
Whenever in doubt, please speak with your physician and a licensed nutritionist.