The Surprising Connection Between Mushrooms and Alzheimer’s Research

As Alzheimer’s Awareness and Brain Health Month draws to a close, we are looking at the latest research regarding the disease that affects more than 5.8 million people of all ages in the United States. The Journal for Alzheimer’s Disease is constantly publishing the latest research and recently examined the connections between eating mushrooms and decreasing the risk of cognitive decline, a precursor to Alzheimer’s. 

Background: What is Alzheimer’s Disease and Who Does it Affect? 

Alzheimer’s Disease is a fatal brain disorder that results in dementia (the loss of cognitive functions like thinking, memory, and decision-making), unpredictable behaviour, language loss, and eventually, the ability to perform tasks essential to survival. About one in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the country. Despite these alarming numbers, only 16 percent of seniors receive cognitive tests during regular check-ups. 

There are two types of this disease depending on when symptoms begin to manifest. The first type is the most common and is known as late-onset Alzheimer’s because symptoms do not develop until the person is in their mid-60’s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s is rarer and can be seen in people as young as 30 years old, with symptoms developing between ages 30 to 60 years old. 

The causes of this lethal disease are still unknown but scientists agree that old age is the highest risk factor. Beyond this, the disease has been linked to inherited genes, specifically the apolipoprotein E, APOE for short, which resides on chromosome 19. Environmental factors and metabolic activity, which could cause heart disease, diabetes, or obesity, could also contribute to Alzheimer’s disease dementia. 

A New Way to Research the Disease

Recent findings include the lack of a connection between the disease and smoking, empathy and Alzheimer’s Disease, and how a multi-nutrient drink could help patients diagnosed with the early-onset type of the disease. 

A report published in the journal in February of this year might be the first step in changing how we look at cures to the disease. Entitled “Small Molecule Amyloid-ß Protein Precursor Processing Modulators Lower Amyloid-ß Peptide Levels via cKit Signaling”, the study was conducted at the Boston University School of Medicine. 

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the formation of waxy amyloid plaques, neuron loss (which are the brain’s communication system), and tau fibre tangles. At Boston University, fifteen scientists examined over 75,000 molecules and discovered that a specific molecule “reduced the formation of amyloid beta protein in cells grown in Petri dishes.” Beyond this, their research also relates to anti-cancer therapies and strengthens the connection between the two diseases. Now, the study only provides the first report in what will have to be a constant wave of research conducted on Alzheimer’s preventative therapy involving this biochemical pathway. But what this research has provided is “a new avenue of research” to prevent Alzheimer’s. As the authors explained to the Journal, “We are in desperate need of drugs that can treat or even prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Additional studies to improve our small molecules could lead to a disease-modifying pill for the millions who suffer from AD or those at high risk of developing the disease.” 

Mother Nature to the Rescue 

As this type of research develops, we might be able to get a little help from Mother Nature to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. A group of nine scientists at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore published this past March, that “seniors who consume more than two standard portions of mushrooms weekly may have 50 percent reduced odds of having mild cognitive impairment (MCI)” with a standard portion being ¾ of a cup of cooked mushrooms. Let’s break that down. 

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI), sometimes called “early Alzheimer’s Disease”, is a kind of stepping stone towards Alzheimer’s disease. It can be hard to diagnose because it’s symptoms are similar to normal ageing — a decline in memory, thinking ability, and judgement. MCI can develop (it does not always) into Alzheimer’s but some doctors disagree about where the line is between the two illnesses. 

The research conducted in Singapore has made a connection between eating two portions (about 1½ cups) of cooked mushrooms once a week and a 50% decrease in the chances of developing MCI. How did they discover this connection? Over the course of six years between 2011 and 2017, these nine scientists observed over 600 Chinese people all over 60 years old and living in Singapore. There were numerous interviews and experts consulted to verify the diagnosis of MCI and ultimately, they found that any form of cooked mushroom intake during the week can help. Six types of mushrooms native to Singapore were examined — golden, oyster, shiitake, white button, dried, and canned mushrooms — but the report stated that “it is likely that other mushrooms not referenced would also have beneficial effects” and they hope to conduct further research on a specific compound found in all the varieties of these mushrooms. 

A six-year study, led by Assistant Professor Feng Lei (left) from the National University of Singapore, found that seniors who ate more than 300 grams of cooked mushrooms a week were half as likely to have mild cognitive impairment. Dr Irwin Cheah (right) is a member of the research team (credit: the National University of Singapore and the Journal for Alzheimer’s Disease


Remember, mushrooms in the local grocery store only cost a couple of dollars! So the next time you’re looking to try something new, consider one of these recipes and make both your stomach and your brain happy! 

Catie Brown

Although I’ve always loved writing, I embarked on my journey into science journalism about three years ago. I am fascinated by all things water — oceans, ice, coral reefs, currents, extreme weather, sanitation, energy, and (of course!) climate change. I also love looking into the different ways we talk about climate change as a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political crisis. Big thanks to coffee and chemistry jokes for keeping me going. Happy reading!