Alzheimer's and dementia aren't inevitable consequences of ageing. There's plenty you can do now to keep your brain healthy
6 ways to keep Alzheimer's at bay
Alzheimer's is a disease we may fear more than any others because it involves a loss of our essential self. When it strikes, the decline is inevitable and inexorable, according to the current medical thinking, and the $48 billion spent on developing a drug that reverses its development has yet to yield any positive results.
Medicine also has no answers as to the causes of Alzheimer's either, other than theorizing that it has something to do with chemical imbalance.
Around 800,000 people in the UK suffer from dementia, and 62 per cent is due to Alzheimer's disease, characterized by plaques and 'tangles' made up of beta-amyloid and tau proteins, respectively, in the brain. So Alzheimer's is the major cause of dementia-which is odd, as the first case was diagnosed in 1907 by German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, after whom the disease is named, and yet, even by the 1930s, pathology textbooks made no mention of the presence of plaques and tangles in the brains of affected corpses.
Although this sudden increase in the past 60 years might perhaps provide a clue as to what Alzheimer's is, the drugs industry and charities it helps support have focused their attention on a pharmaceutical solution, so far with little or no success. But there is promising research out there that points to possible causes and ways it can be treated, and even to approaches that may slow its progress.
1- Watch your homocysteine levels
High blood levels of the amino-acid homocysteine are a marker of Alzheimer's. It's produced by the body after eating meat and plays a part in atherosclerosis, where the arteries start to stiffen and become clogged by fatty deposits. Any homocysteine score above 10 mmol/L (litre of blood) is considered a risk for Alzheimer's. The link was established more than a decade ago when researchers discovered that people with hyperhomocysteinaemia-having abnormally high homocysteine blood levels-were much more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer's.1
2- Supplement with B vitamins
Taking B vitamins-including B6, B12 and folic acid-is a recognized way to reduce homocysteine levels, and if homocysteine is a marker for an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's, it follows that supplementing with B vitamins might be a preventative. That's the theory that the Vitacog trial has been working on for the past three years or so. Based at Oxford University, the research team has been assessing how the vitamins reduce brain shrinkage and slow memory loss in a group of people, aged 70 years and older, diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is seen as an early stage of Alzheimer's and dementia.
The researchers, led by Prof David Smith, established that the 77 participants with MCI and raised homocysteine levels suffered the most rapid brain shrinkage-and that B vitamins slowed the process.2
3- Improve your diet
If there's a link between homocysteine and Alzheimer's, it makes sense to reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat, as it's been linked to high homocysteine levels. Avoid trans fats too, and eat plenty of antioxidant foods like black raspberries, elderberries, raisins and blueberries. Antioxidant-rich vegetables include carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach. Eat more oily fish and less meat, and enjoy chocolate and a glass of red wine, as these can all help keep the brain healthy. Tea-especially green tea-also helps combat the toxic effects of beta-amyloid.3
4- Use your brain
Don't draw the curtains and veg out on daytime TV. Instead, take up more intellectually challenging pursuits like reading, playing board games, completing crossword puzzles and playing a musical instrument, all of which have been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's.4 The same goes for developing a new skill, joining an adult-education course or learning a new language.5
5- Socialize and exercise
Exercising three times a week-a vigorous walk
for at least half an hour will do-reduces the riskof Alzheimer's by around 30 per cent, even among the over-65s who are most at risk.6 And we're naturally social creatures, so engage in the world, join an amateur dramatics or other social group, or make sure you see your family circle regularly.
6- Try taking herbs
If you're starting to display a few symptoms of MCI such as forgetting things, a few herbs seem promising in helping to slow down any mental decline. Sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia/officinalis) has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects; in one test against a placebo, people who took 60 drops/day of sage oil maintained their mental functioning better than those taking Aricept, an Alzheimer's drug.7 Instead of a prescription drug, Ginkgo biloba is often prescribed for patients with early-stage Alzheimer's by doctors in Germany. The recommended dosage is 240 mg/day, although it can take up to six months before any improvement is evident.8
The spice curcumin, a standard ingredient in Indian curries, also seems to have Alzheimer-fighting qualities. One study at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) found that the spice boosted the immune (macrophage) clearance of beta-amyloid in the Alzheimer's-damaged brain.9
1. N Engl J Med, 2002; 346: 476-83
2. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2013; 110: 9523-8
3. Am J Clin Nutr, 2007; 85: 1598-605; Carper J. 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer's and Age-Related Memory Loss. Little, Brown and Company, 2010
4. Int Rev Psychiatry, 2007; 19: 693-706
5. CMAJ, 2008; 178: 548-56
6. Ann Intern Med, 2006; 144: 73-81
7. Curr Pharm Des, 2006; 12: 4613-23
8. Pharmacopsychiatry, 2003; 36: 297-303
9. J Alzheimers Dis, 2006; 10: 1-7
Too much copper?
Is the copper piping in your home's plumbing system contributing to Alzheimer's? It's still a controversial theory, but there's plenty of evidence to support it.
In 2003, researchers added copper to the distilled water fed to laboratory rabbits and the animals soon started to develop beta-amyloid protein in their brains, the main building block of the plaques, or particles, seen in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.1 The same pattern was found in beagles and mice when copper was added to their drinking water.2
So what's the link? Normally our brains have a natural defence against beta-amyloid buildup. Molecules called LRPs (low-density lipoprotein receptors) act as the brain's police force and move amyloid in the brain's capillaries to the rest of the body's circulation, from where it is then eliminated. However, laboratory tests have shown that copper damages LRPs to such an extent that they stop working.3
Dr George Brewer at the University of Michigan Medical School, who is convinced of the link between copper in our drinking water and Alzheimer's, says the development of the modern plumbing system has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the disease. He argues that Alzheimer's was still relatively rare until the 1950s, when there was a sudden increase in both the disease and the modernization (using copper) of plumbing systems across the US. A similar pattern has been seen in developing countries as their homes also become modernized.4
1. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2003; 100: 11065-9
2. J Nutr Health Aging, 2006; 10: 247-54
3. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2013; 110: 14771-6
4. Townsend Letter, 2013; 363: 52-8
Everyone has become acutely aware of the early warning signs of Alzheimer's and dementia-memory loss, forgetting where you've left your keys, unable to recall someone's name, and so on-but perhaps it's all gone a little too far, say specialists.
They argue that these mild problems, which can be the natural consequence of an ageing brain, don't necessarily lead to Alzheimer's. In fact, they may even improve.
A team of specialists in Australia and the UK estimates that up to 23 per cent of elderly people diagnosed with dementia are, in fact, perfectly healthy. Only 15 per cent of those diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment actually go on to develop full-blown Alzheimer's, while between 40 and 70 per cent don't progress and sometimes even get better.1
1.BMJ, 2013; 347: f5125