At the conference, I took the opportunity to go to as many presentations on this topic as possible so that I could report back to you. The good news is that while Alzheimer’s is an age related disease, it is not a fait de complet of aging.
The constant thread was that lifestyle choices are key to successfully keeping at bay this insidious disease. Not drugs. There are no drugs to keep a person from getting this disease. There are only drugs that make the symptoms more manageable, for a time. One particular lecturer, a neurologist from UCLA, Dr. Gary Small, stated that “preventing cell loss is more effective than trying to repair a damaged brain.”
The fact is that 66% of brain aging is attributable to lifestyle choices while 33% is attributable to genetic factors. This is not just about eating right and exercising; it is about avoiding depression and toxic substances like cigarettes (If you are over 65 years old and smoke, your chances increase for developing Alzheimer’s by over 70 percent). It is about getting enough sleep and exercise and staying engaged.
There is recent evidence of the role of vascular risk factors in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. A history of diabetes and elevated levels of cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol, are associated with faster cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study from Columbia University Medical Center researchers. These results add further evidence of the role of vascular risk factors in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.1
Those who suffer from high blood pressure, strokes and diabetes are typically overweight, suffer stress, smoke, have clogged arteries, and do not exercise.
Physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain as well as to encourage new brain cells and reduce the stress hormone cortisol. It also can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, and thereby protect against those risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Aerobic exercise improves oxygen consumption, which benefits brain function; aerobic fitness has been found to reduce brain cell loss in elderly subjects. Walking, bicycling, gardening, tai chi, yoga and other activities of about 30 minutes daily get the body moving and the heart pumping. Studies have shown that active laboratory animals have more hippocampal memory cells than inactive controls, and that cardiovascular fitness is associated with greater parietal, temporal and frontal cortical tissue.2
Stress is management an important factor in treating Alzheimer’s disease. Stress rapidly exacerbates the formation of plaques and tangles that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. People with stressful lives are around 2-3 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than others.
In a study of laboratory animals, mice placed under chronic stress conditions had fewer hippocampal neurons and impaired memory compared with the mice in the control group. 3 stress hormone cortisol plays a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced in the adrenal gland in response to times of stress. In the short term, following a stressful experience, cortisol levels rapidly increase in the blood stream, and its presence is helpful – improving short-term memory formation and adapting the body’s physiology to deal with the situation effectively.
However, long-term stress leads to prolonged elevated levels of cortisol within the blood stream, which can have serious deleterious effects. In this study, researchers took young animals, before they were old enough to have Alzheimer’s disease pathology, and injected them with a rodent equivalent of cortisol every day for 1 week. After just a single week they looked inside the brains of these animals.
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that levels of the crippling proteins were tremendously elevated. This demonstrated that increases in circulating cortisol in humans is able to increase the pathology present in the brain – and thus could make people develop Alzheimer’s disease faster.4
Healthy Brain Diet
Some studies suggest that higher dietary intake of antioxidants, vitamins B6, B12, and folate, unsaturated fatty acids, and fish and Omega 3 fatty acids are related to a lower risk of AD, but reports are inconsistent.
Modest to moderate alcohol intake, particularly wine, may be related to a lower risk of AD. The Mediterranean diet may also be related to lower AD risk.
Rush University Medical Center researchers conducted an informal survey of 6,000 people initially unaffected by Alzheimer’s disease on Chicago’s South Side. They gathered a staggering amount of data about dietary habits and then regularly evaluated a subgroup for signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
They found that foods rich in vitamin E such as oil-based salad dressings, fortified cereals, green leafy vegetables, cantaloupe, seeds and nuts were associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. They also found that people who eat fish at least once a week were 60 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who rarely or never ate fish.
They think that the key ingredient is the n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish.
From this data, the team made an association between high intakes of saturated and trans-unsaturated fats and Alzheimer’s disease. That means it’s better to limit fatty meats, full-fat dairy products like butter and milk and vegetable shortening.
Since research indicates that oxidation of the brain over time causes mental deterioration, the researchers speculate that Vitamin E, as an antioxidant, may combat that process. The n-3 fatty acids found in fish share chemical similarities to substances found in the brain’s gray matter. These substances help transmit signals to the brain, allowing for learning and memory storage.
As for the “bad fats,” these culprits are associated with high cholesterol, and high cholesterol as discussed above has been shown to be bad for both the heart and the brain.
However, randomized clinical trials of supplements of vitamins E, B12, B6, and folate have shown no cognitive benefit, and randomized trials for other nutrients or diets in AD are not available. The existing evidence does not support the recommendation of specific supplements, foods, or diets for the prevention of AD.
Obviously, since being overweight can cause diseases that make you more susceptible to getting Alzheimer’s disease, moderating your food intake would be wise.
Memory training programs and technology
There are a host of these programs and technology and some have proven to be effective. If you are interested in finding out more about this please email me. Some of these technologies will be available at my next seminar. Most researchers will tell you that you need to keep your mind active and stay engaged.