Fight Alzheimer's: Think Young

In the next 40 years, the number of 80-year-olds is expected to triple. Sadly, the incidence of memory-robbing Alzheimer's disease (AD) may also triple in that period. Because obesity has been linked to AD, that figure may grow even higher. 

A progressive neurological disease that impairs normal communication between brain cells, Alzheimer's occurs when plaques, or lesions in brain tissues, trigger inflammation and eventual mental decline. Because the damage occurs within brain cells and in the synapses in between, normal metabolic processes can't remove plaques, although anti-nflammatories and antioxidants are beneficial.

Genetic inheritance plays a role in much of Alzheimer's disease, but other factors can include diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, susceptibility to stress, and even aluminum. Responsible for approximately 70 percent of all dementia-related conditions, AD is characterized by:

  • confusion that makes simple activities (cooking, driving, and shopping) difficult
  • short-term memory loss
  • difficulty managing money
  • trouble bathing, dressing, or grooming
  • inability to communicate reasonably.

By itself, forgetfulness does not mean you have Alzheimer's. Alcohol dependence, depression, multiple minor strokes, overmedication, a  slow thyroid, and even vitamin deficiencies can impair memory. Information overload, so common in today's 24/7 world, is also linked to age-related dementia and AD.

Train Your Brain
Focusing on a single task-rather than responding to extraneous stimuli-enhances mental function. Attention and concentration "sculpt brain activity by turning up or down the rate at which particular sets of synapses [meeting points of communication within the brain] fire-and since we know that firing a set of synapses again and again makes the trembling web grow bigger and stronger, it follows that attention is an important ingredient for brain sculpture," explains psychologist Ian H. Robertson, PhD.

Don't retire your mind when you retire from work. Go back to school. Travel. Learn a new game or language. Paint, invent, or compose. Share your life experiences by teaching others. Think young.

Feed Your Mind
The brain conducts the body's orchestra, directing actions, desires, emotions, and thoughts. It regulates activities we are rarely conscious of-from digestion and heartbeats to the rates of respiratory function and when we fall asleep or awaken. Given the brain's massive workload, it's not surprising that this organ uses 20 percent of our daily energy supply. Within only two weeks, however, eating small plant-based meals, along with relaxation and regular exercise, appears to boost brain function.

High-fiber foods-fruits and vegetables, nuts, and whole grains-and marine-based fats available in the Mediterranean diet appear protective against Alzheimer's. A number of studies also suggest that drinking green tea helps prevent inflammation and cell damage in AD.

Essential fatty acids help prevent cognitive decline as we age, so consider daily fish-oil supplements, rich in omega-3 fats. By contrast, omega 6s in highly processed corn and soybean oil have been linked to cognitive impairment.

Consuming too many acidic foods (animal protein and processed foods) may increase aluminum uptake in AD, suggests Alan C. Logan, ND, at Harvard's Mind-Body Institute. "While much has been made of aluminum in water, deodorants, and pots and pans, it appears that processed foods are a far more significant source," he explains. Anticaking agents, baking powder, emulsifiers, leaveners, stabilizers, and thickeners are all high in aluminum. And research has found a much higher risk of AD in people who eat baked goods using these sources of aluminum.

Elevated homocysteine (an amino acid) levels have also been linked to Alzheimer's. The long-term Framingham study suggests that folate and vitamins B6 and B12 help lower homocysteine.

Smart Supplements
Free radicals damage cells, including those in the brain. Blood levels of antioxidant vitamin C are significantly lower in people with Alzheimer's than people without cognitive loss. Following close to 3,000 seniors, a Chicago study linked higher levels of antioxidant vitamin E with lower rates of cognitive decline. A Tufts University review shows that C and E supplementation improves brain performance, while lowering the risk of age-related mental decline.

One small investigation finds that alpha lipoic acid stabilized mental function in Alzheimer's patients ranging in age from 52 to 81, concluding that this antioxidant "may be a neuroprotective" supplement. Since antioxidants work together, com-bining several appears more useful than taking just one.

Declining energy production at the cellular level contributes not only to aging but also to AD. A recent meta-analysis in the U.K. looked at acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) in patients with mild cognitive impairment and mild Alzheimer's. At three months, six months, and one year, study participants taking ALC showed a "significant advantage" over the subjects taking a placebo.

Other useful supplements? Carnosine and taurine help prevent cognitive decline. Also consider phosphatidylserine (PS), essential to the formation of brain cell membranes. The beneficial effect of PS supplementation on thought processing has resulted in two FDA-approved, qualified health claims for the elderly: It may reduce risk of dementia and cognitive dysfunction.

Brainy Botanicals
Double-blind, placebo-controlled research finds that ginkgo (specifically, 120 mg/day Ginkoba) improves both mental performance and social functioning in patients with varying degrees of cognitive impairment. Rich in flavonoids, ginkgo increases blood flow to the brain and enhances the ability to focus, while reducing inflammation and oxidative (or free-radical) damage to brain cells. Combining anti-inflammatory ginger with ginkgo appears to prevent age-related mental decline, too.

Turmeric contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory curcumin that inhibits cognition-disrupting agents. Experimental research in the Journal of Biological Chemistry finds that turmeric prevents plaque buildup-characteristic of Alzheimer's-and actually breaks up existing plaque.

Always discuss supplementation with a healthcare professional if you are on medication. While no cases of drug interactions have been reported, people taking standardized ginkgo extracts often take other drugs at the same time. Ginkgo may possibly interact with aspirin and warfarin, for example. Turmeric may increase the effects of anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs, as well.

Beyond Genes
Recent studies with twins suggest that genes may not be so important as once believed in determining whether we develop disease. Particularly insightful is research with identical twins who share exactly the same genetic heritage.

Consider one twin, for example, who at 92 is straight-backed, firm-jawed, and clearly healthy. Living independently, still working part-time, and driving, this woman never thought she'd reach this age. Her identical twin sister has dementia, has lost most of her vision, is incontinent, and has had a hip replacement.

Other differences? The first, healthy twin has always been active (a tomboy who couldn't sit still) and worked her way through college to earn a master's degree and a career in teaching. Her sister, by contrast, was the "frilly type" and barely finished high school. So much for genes!

"If you could identify factors for exceptionally good health, that might allow people to avoid disease," says Evan Hadley, MD, who directs the National Institute on Aging's geriatrics and clinical gerontology program. Increasingly, nutrition appears to be one of those factors.

SELECTED SOURCES: "Alzheimer's Highly Inherited, Twins Study Finds," Reuters, 2/6/06  The Brain Diet by Alan C. Logan, ND, FRSH ($22.95, Cumberland, 2006)  The Brainpower Plan by Jordan K. Davis, MD ($17.95, Basic Health, 2006)  "Is It Aging? Is It Alzheimer's?" by Alice Dembner, Boston Globe, 7/6/04  "Live Long? Die Young? Answer Isn't Just in Genes" by Gina Kolata, New York Times, 8/31/06  "The Many Facets of Hyperhomocysteinemia: Studies from the Framingham Cohorts" by J. Selhub, J Nutr, 6/06  "Mediterranean Diet and Risk for Alzheimer's Disease" by N. Scarmeas et al., Ann Neurol, 6/06  "The Molecular Basis of the Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease through Healthy Nutrition" by M. Steele et al., Exp Gerontol, 7/11/06  "Nutrition in Brain Development and Aging: Role of Essential Fatty Acids" by R. Uauy and A. D. Dangour, Nutr Rev, 5/06  "Nutrition Hint 2222: A Mere Two Weeks of Lifestyle Change Can Improve Your Brain Efficiency" by Betty Kamen, PhD, Table Talk Health Hints, 2006  "Obesity Linked to Increased Risk of Alzheimer's Disease,", 12/31/05  User's Guide to Brain-Boosting Supplements by James Gormley and Shari Lieberman, PhD, CNS, FACN ($5.95, Basic Health, 2004)

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