What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease (AHLZ-high-merz) is a brain disorder characterized by progressive brain cell failure. It is the most common form of dementia, which is a family of diseases that leads to the inability to function normally in daily living activities. As the illness advances, it affects a patient’s memory, as well as learning, reasoning and communication skills. In the latter stages, personality and behavior may be altered, including bouts of paranoia, suspicion, delusion, and hallucinations. In the final stage of Alzheimer’s, the patient will need total care due to loss of motor skills as brain function declines. Alzheimer’s is ultimately a fatal disease if it runs full course.
It is important to understand that Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is not a normal part of aging. Studies have estimated that perhaps 10% of folks over age 65 have AD, with the percentage increasing to 50% for those over age 85. It is thought that approximately 4.5 million Americans are afflicted with AD. While much research is being done, the cause for AD has yet to be determined, and there is no known cure. However, there are treatments and interventions that have shown promise, especially during the early stages of the disease.
What are the Risk Factors for Developing Alzheimer’s Disease?
The most critical risk factor of AD is age. While young people occasionally get the disease, most cases develop after the age of 65, and the chances of getting the illness generally double every 5 years thereafter.
Second to age, the next major factor is heredity and genetics. Those with a close relative who has a history of AD or dementia have a greater risk of coming down with it, and if more than one family member has it that risk increases accordingly. Genetic studies have isolated a gene that manufactures a protein called polipoprotein E (ApoE).
While we all have ApoE , a protein necessary to carry cholesterol in the blood, about 15% of us have the form that is considered a risk factor for AD.
Other factors have been identified as well. There seems to be a connection between head injuries and AD. A serious head injury can definitely increase the chance of developing AD later in life. Another interesting finding is the correlation between and brain-health a heart-health. The brain is rich in blood vessels, and this amazing organ of ours uses 20% or more of all the nutrients and oxygen in our circulatory system. Any disorder that affects our heart, such as coronary disease, high blood pressure, stroke, or diabetes can increase the risk of AD.
Ingesting excessive amounts of metals such as aluminum and copper have been shown to be linked to AD as well. It has been proven that the brains of AD patients have higher than normal levels of aluminum. Of particular interest are multiple studies that have linked AD to drinking tap water. French researchers have linked higher case loads of Alzheimer’s to geographical areas where the concentration of aluminum in the drinking water is greater. Also of concern is the effect of the combination of fluoride added by many municipal water treatment plants with aluminum, forming aluminum fluoride, thereby increasing AD and dementia risk factors. It has also been discovered that aluminum has an enzyme which blocks the brain from properly utilizing Vitamin B 12.
What Can I Do to Reduce the Risk of Developing AD?
This is the good news! There is much which can be done in the way of diet, exercise, and lifestyle management which will not only reduce risk factors for AD, but are also healthy choices that many of us are probably already making (or are intending to). Perhaps the most important steps we can take involve maintaining good brain health, especially as we age.
- A brain-healthy diet is of utmost importance. Choosing foods that are low in saturated fats, high-fiber, and high in antioxidants will fill us with things that are good for our hearts and will stave off other factors (such as diabetes and high blood pressure) that affect brain health. One study of elderly women showed that those who ate more leafy green cruciferous vegetables were found to be 1-2 years “mentally younger” than those who ate only small amounts. Eat lots of dark-skinned fruits and vegetables that are naturally high in antioxidants. Such fruits include: red grapes, cherries, most varieties of berries, oranges, and plums. Some recommended vegetables are: spinach, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, peppers, alfalfa sprouts, and eggplant. Cold-water fish which is high in Omega-3 fatty-acids is also great for brain cells (i.e., cod, mackerel, halibut, tuna). Foods that are high in vitamin E are also beneficial, such as almonds, pecans, and walnuts.
- Maintaining proper weight is also extremely helpful in reducing the risk of AD. Researchers conducted a long-term study involving 1500 people and found that those who were obese in middle-age doubled their risk of dementia in their senior years. Those also having high cholesterol and high blood pressure increased their risk by a whopping six times!
- Exercise is essential as well. Physical activity is really a two-fold weapon against the onset of AD. First it fends off poor heart health, strokes, and diabetes which are enemies of brain health as we have previously discussed. Secondly, it increases blood flow to the brain which keeps existing cells healthy and stimulates the growth of new cells. As a bonus, exercise helps to reduce the overall stress in our lives which is good for our brains and every other part of our being.
- Socialization and mental activity also play a factor. Studies have shown that those who keep their minds active and don’t isolate themselves from interaction with others have better connections between brain cells, and it may even help to stimulate the growth of new nerve cells. Physical exercise is not the only type of activity that helps, so it behooves us as we age to keep our minds busy and relationships alive and well.
- Current research has very recently discovered another factor that some are saying is revolutionizing the way researchers are looking at AD. There is a strong connection between blood sugar levels and insulin management and the onset of AD. The best way to lower your risk is to take the steps necessary to lessen your chances of getting diabetes. If diabetes runs in your family, be especially careful as studies are now pointing to the fact that high blood sugar levels and pre-diabetes can make one more prone to develop dementia later in life. All the facts are not in yet, but it appears that there is a clear connection, although to what degree is not known as of yet.
Are There Any Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease?
While there is no known cure for AD, there are some treatments that have proven effective for both preventing the condition and lessening the symptoms for patients in the early stages of development. As far as prevention goes, the most effective steps are those outlined above regarding healthy lifestyle and diet choices that lead to good brain and overall body health. Avoiding toxins such as aluminum and drinking pure clean water are essential preventative steps. Eating a diet high in vitamin E and antioxidants to offset free-radical damage also is very helpful in keeping brain function healthy and avoiding dementia.
Treatment of individuals already afflicted with AD can basically go in two directions: prescription drugs, and non-drug interventions. Avoiding prescription drugs is definitely the preferred way to go. Behavioral modifications are often effective in helping patients deal with agitation and confusion. Often triggering factors can be identified and modified or avoided. For example, many times a change in routine or environment will upset a patient. A different caregiver, or the presence of visitors that are not usually present may be a trigger. It has also been found that increasing lighting appropriately, especially at night, can lessen patient anxiety. Simplifying routines and allowing for adequate rest between activities is also helpful.
Are There Any Herbal Remedies That are Helpful?
- Ginkgo biloba is the most widely recommended and used herb for treatment of AD. There is solid scientific evidence that proves the effectiveness of Ginkgo in lessening the memory loss of patients in the early stages of AD. Originally thought to increase blood flow to the brain, scientists now believe it is affective by stimulating nerve cells as well as shielding them from increased damage. Recommended dosage is 240-320 mg per day. Research has shown that Ginkgo can also help folks without AD to improve their memories and avoid normal memory loss as they age.
- Phosphatidylserine has been used extensively in Europe for the treatment of dementia. While not sure exactly how it works, researchers have found some promising results. Over a dozen double-blind studies have verified improvement of memory loss and depression in AD patients using this substance. Dosage is 100 mg three times daily.
- Huperzine A is not found in nature, but is synthetically manufactured from a species of moss. Research has found this substance to help memory improvement in all kinds of folks, those with AD and those without.
- Vinpocetine is also created in the lab from plant-life. Studies have shown it to increase blood flow to the brain and to help protect brain cells from being damaged by insufficient oxygen.
- There are many other natural remedies that preliminary studies have shown to have some promise in aiding AD victims. Ginseng has properties that help the brain to function better. Vitamin B12 is usually a good idea for everyone. Vitamins C and E are recommended too. One study has shown a connection between high doses of Vitamin E (2,000 IU of dl-alpha-tocopherol per day) and slower progression of the disease in individuals. (Beware of bleeding issues with certain patients at this dosage).
Alzheimer’s disease is a very serious condition which has negatively impacted many individuals and families worldwide. As we begin to live longer, health issues that affect our aging population come more and more to the forefront. While this disease has had devastating consequences on our society, and a cure has not yet been found, the good news is that if we take a proactive stance against disease and for preventative heath measures, we can greatly increase our chances of remaining healthy and happy long into our “Senior Years.”