How can drinking tea help delay or reduce the effects of dementia and other cognitive health issues?

One of the opportunities that discussing Alzheimer’s and tea-drinking offers in this series, What’s Healthy About Tea?, is the opportunity to take not only a whole-of-body but also a whole-of-life approach to health. Certainly, there is considerable laboratory research on how tea extracts affect the health of cell tissue. But there is also evidence that the act of preparing and sharing tea as a daily activity also contributes to maintaining cognitive well-being as we age. 

People living with dementia can experience problems with memory loss, cognitive abilities, language, and communication. We’re discovering many ways in which we can modify diet and daily activities to fend off the ravages of cognitive decline. As simple as it may sound, adding true tea, Camellia sinensis, as well as the practice of making and sharing tea to your daily routine can play an important role.

Most of us fear illness and injury that make us dependent on others, unable to think clearly and enjoy the 

An elderly woman drinking tea, enjoying afternoon teatime as part of a daily routine may be helping avoid dementia and Alzheimer's Disease

What is dementia? Alzheimer’s?

Alois Alzheimer was the first to publish a description of the disease in 1906. Yet, the history of senile dementia and other cognitive issues before 1906 is rich. Beginning with ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and physicians, studies of mental health issues and mental decline, particularly in aging, have established that we are not all affected in the same way. That cognitive compromise is not inevitable. That dementia can be caused by many different things. It is an umbrella term that includes variations like Alzheimer’s that can be diagnosed by an abnormal buildup of proteins in the brain, as well as Vascular Dementia that involves restricted blood flow to the brain and even Mixed Dementia that results from multiple causes. Other mental health issues may include symptoms like memory loss and confusion that appear similar to dementia but are not. 

Tea can help with aging and neurological decline in several ways. 

  • Neuroprotection – Many meta-analysis studies have shown that tea intake might have neuroprotective effects. Data from 26 previous observations including 52,503 participants showed that daily tea consumption could significantly lower the risk of cognitive decline, cognitive impairment, and mild cognitive impairment in elderly.  ( 2018 Mar; 23(3): 512.)
  • Improved attention and psychomotor speed – These results add to the growing body of research showing that teas derived from the plantCamellia sinensis, irrespective of their manufacturing processing and demographic consumption habits have a beneficial effect on cognitive function dependent on frequency of consumption.
  • Cellular health & apoptosisThese results suggest that tea polyphenol-induced production of H2O2 may mediate apoptosis and that this may contribute to the growth inhibitory activities of tea polyphenols in vitro. (Cacinogenesis. 1998 Apr;19(4):611-6.
     doi: 10.1093/carcin/19.4.611.)
  • Action-based Memory – The authors observed large differences in the rate of decline of the volunteers, with substantial preservation of performed recall of the everyday task, even in the more severe phases of the disease.(Action-based memory in Alzheimer’s disease: A longitudinal look at tea making. Neurocase, 8(1-2), 111 126.). * See Below.
  • Maintain Social Skills – Sharing a cup of tea with family and friends invites many different levels of practicing social skills. It’s not as much about proper place settings as it is about how to hold comfortable conversations. How to be an attentive host and grateful guest. Recall and storytelling is an activity that occur naturally over a cup of tea and can be a lifelong practice for good mental and cognitive health.
  • Sensory elements – Tea drinking, Camellia sinensis and herbal teas, are by nature sensory experiences. But tea preparation can also exercise the senses in many ways. Stimulating the senses in those who are challenged with mental or neurological issues can be helpful. 
  • Relaxing & Reducing Anxiety – Teatime as a regular practice, either simple and solitary or slightly more complex by including others can be a way to relax. Teatime can become a tool that we use when we need to deal with a challeging issue. By establishing this as a practice early in life, it may continue to be meaningful and functional for a lifetime.

Afternoon Tea in Nursing Homes & Assisted Living Facilities 

I’ve worked with several different activity directors in senior care facilities, including skilled nursing, assisted living, and memory care, to develop afternoon tea as an activity. The results were remarkable and consistent at every facility in several ways.

    • Residents who did not participate in other activities came to tea.
    • Some who seldom spoke became more conversational.
    • They almost all had memories connected to sharing tea.

    My tea events were never intended to be “studies” or to be scientific research. But the results were obvious enough for me to feel confident in saying that the experience of tea can call back memories and inspire a sense of being present in that moment. The activity of preparing and sharing tea stimulated memories that are very meaningful. The results were almost always so positive that activity directors made tea parties regular events on the monthly calendar. And I became  interested in scientific studies that looked at the activity of preparing and sharing tea as a diagnostic took and treatment for dementia.

    Action-based Memory in Alzheimer’s Disease: a Longitudinal Look at Tea Making – A study conducted by Jennifer Rusted and Linda Sheppard in 2010.

    We assessed memory in a natural setting, visiting volunteers in their homes. We video-taped performance on the selected task and analyzed the record for the presence or absence of each of its component actions over a period of 6 years. In this way, we obtained longitudinal data for a small group of people moving from the mild-moderate stages of dementia through to severe dysfunction.

    In this study, Rusted and Sheppard were primarily concerned with comparisons between memory function that is more abstract and memories that are connected with a physical activity. They noted that there was a substantial preservation of performed recall for everyday tasks. In this case, the preparation of tea. They noted differences between performing the task in a familiar setting and in a new and unfamiliar setting. They also observed and discussed how the ability to perform the daily task of making tea degraded over time and could be one of the skills tracked and considered to evaluate the progression of the disease. 

    More than a cup of tea: Meaning construction in an everyday occupation

    by British Occupational Therapist, Deborah Hannam. Some of the most interesting aspects of her work are that she recognized activities of daily living with meaning as being of relevance in the treatment of dementia and that she created different categories of meaning.

    • reasons for tea‐drinking
    • the senses
    • objects used
    • the social context
    • changes in lifestyle

    Hannam chose the preparation of tea as an activity with meaning. In doing so, it seems that she may be opening up a very interesting

    “The objective world is given meaning through activity and language. The process of creating meaning takes place throughout life and is shaped by our social and cultural environment. Yet little is known about the role of everyday activity in the construction and maintenance of meaning.”

     Of course, we cannot draw far-reaching conclusions from small studies like these, there is a feeling of common sense for most of us tea drinkers for whom tea has become, over time, a daily practice and an important daily activity. If we consider that tea preparation can and often does become a mindfulness or meditation practice and even more meaningful, it seems logical to find similar health benefits to tea preparation.  

    Family Tea Times & Health

    So, I’ll pose this question: Are we missing an important opportunity to create meaning for ourselves and our children if we do not embrace a tea tradition as individuals and as families? 

    The teatime memories of the residents in senior care facilities all began as young children. They were moments shared with the adults in their lives who set aside a special time in the day where the main activity, other than tea and treats, was conversation. For others, memories were more sensory; the feeling of holding a warm cup, the aroma of the tea, the clink of the china cup. What is it that a mindful tea practice provides each of us to treasure and to share? I wrote a section about this in my book, The Everything Healthy Tea Book.  (pg 258-259)

    The original “high tea” was actually a family teatime in England, while “low tea” or “afternoon tea” was the social event. Afternoon tea was served in a parlor or drawing-room on a “low table,” in contrast to a dining room table used for a larger meal. Originally, the word “high” referred to the height of the table, the one where the family gathered at the end of the day for a substantial meal along with tea and conversation. The essence of the original “high tea” is being revitalized when families set aside special teatimes, where phones and other electronics are turned off and simple fare doesn’t distract from what’s really important—uninterrupted conversation.

    All too often, modern family life unavoidably interrupts family mealtimes. Teatime also has an advantage because it is not considered to be one of the required daily meals. It is not an obligation. Even simple daily teatime can feel like a party.

    Parents looking for more ways to spend meaningful time with their children are discovering teatime. In addition to starting a simple family tradition, exploring the fun of tea encourages it as a replacement beverage for canned sodas, and naturally sweet, flavored teas can eliminate the need for added sugar. healthy fruit dishes served at teatime can replace nutritionally empty sweets. Preparation for a family teatime can be a way a fun way to involve children in the kitchen and teach cooking basics—even sharing some of the secret family recipes (or making them up together).


    Considerations for everyone pondering Dementia and their tea-drinking habits

    Most of us share concerns about loss of mental clarity as we age and even small memory lapses trigger fears of dementia. Even though medical science may find a medication to prevent or treat this disease, there is evidence that we can make changes to our lifestyles to avoid or minimize the problem. Extracts from tea (Camellia sinensis) may be one element in a medication. There is still considerable research needed before we can say with authority that the chemical compounds in the true tea plant have consistent and measurable value. But starting a tea lifestyle is one way that you can begin at every age to experience a greater sense of well-being and plan for a healthier future.  

    Next Aticle in This Series: Ten Ways To Increase Tea To Your Lifestyle for Longterm Mental and Emotional Health

    Because there has been so much interest in this topic, next week’s installment will be a very hands-on list of ways in which you can use tea and teatime with family and friends to improve mental and neural health at all ages.