Can you protect yourself from Alzheimer’s?

By Graham Simpson M.D.

Many of you reading this will have witnessed the devastating impact of dementia first hand through an elderly relative or loved one. Dementia now affects almost 50 million people worldwide, with close to eight million new cases being confirmed each year. The vast majority of these, around 60 to 70%, are Alzheimer’s cases.

Just on a quick side note up front here to briefly explain the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, as it is a question that comes up more and more. The basic answer is, in fact, that there isn’t actually a difference per se. Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms – including impaired thinking and memory loss – that is usually associated with the cognitive decline of ageing. It is not in and of itself considered to be a disease. Alzheimer’s, however, is considered a disease, and is categorized as a specific form of dementia that impairs thought process, affects memory, and causes extreme confusion and problems with speech.

Alzheimer's protection

Without getting any further caught up in technical definitions, what is clear is that all forms of dementia have a heart-breaking effect on both sufferers and their loved ones. It is, for many, an absolutely terrifying affliction. Sufferers can experience extreme confusion and frustration at not being able to perform the simplest of tasks, while their loved ones often have to watch as the person they knew slowly fades away before their eyes.

One of the most worrying things about all this is that rates of dementia are by no means slowing or stabilizing, and in fact it is very much the opposite. A new sufferer is diagnosed every 3.2 seconds around the world, and the estimated number of people with the condition is expected to surpass 100 million by 2020. Here in the Middle East, the World Health Organisation (WHO) expects to see a 125% increase in Alzheimer’s cases by 2050.

The only bright spot in this rather grim scenario is that while Alzheimer’s and dementia are often found in elderly patients, it is by no means an inevitable part of growing old. There are in fact several things we can do, starting from a young age, to help protect ourselves from Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Diet

As with most things health-related, our diet has its part to play in helping to keep dementia at bay – a very large part in fact. A paper recently published in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology reported that “Alzheimer’s represents a form of diabetes that selectively involves the brain and has molecular and biochemical features that overlap with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.”

The paper goes on to refer to Alzheimer’s as ‘type 3 diabetes’, a more and more used term among medical professionals. The connection is that in the very same way type 2 diabetes results from insulin resistance in the muscle, liver, and fat cells, so too is Alzheimer’s, in part, due to insulin resistance in the brain.

As for what foods to avoid to help protect against insulin resistance, I think we all know the answer – sugar and grains and all those foods that have too much of an impact on our blood sugar levels. Not only have low-to-medium levels of sugar been shown to disrupt brain function, but according to the American journal Neurology, one long-term effect of sugar is to shrink the brain’s hippocampus – and a smaller hippocampus is often found in Alzheimer’s patients.

Alzheimer’s is now very often referred to as ‘type 3 diabetes’ by many in the medical professional.

On the other side of the coin there are plenty of great foods to get into your diet to help protect the brain from the effect of Alzheimer’s and dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, including spinach, beetroot, peppers, blackberries, strawberries, red grapes and oranges, while there is also evidence to suggest that eating plenty of fish high in omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for cognitive health.

Stay Active

One of the best ways to lower your risk of Alzheimer’s is to get moving. According to King’s College London, physical inactivity is thought to account for 21.8% of the total risk of developing Alzheimer’s, while researchers at the University of Illinois found evidence to suggest that regular aerobic activity – such as running, cycling or walking – helps to protect brain function by supplying it with regular blasts of oxygen-rich blood. What’s more, this exercise does not need to be of a high intensity. In fact, the United Kingdom Alzheimer’s Association advises that just 30 minutes of light-to-medium exercise per day is enough to have an effect.

Watch your weight

There’s another reason why eating healthy and staying active can help reduce your chances of dementia: the heavier you are, the more likely you are to develop Alzheimer’s. At least that’s according to research published by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine, whose researchers found that the brains of older people who were obese (with a BMI over 30) had around 8% less brain volume than individuals of a normal weight. The study goes on to conclude that when brain volume decreases reach approximately 10%, symptoms such as memory loss and confusion often appear.

Previous studies have also presented evidence that those with a BMI of between 25 and 30 have a two-fold increase in risk of Alzheimer’s, while those who are obese in middle-age increase their risk by three-fold. As for what causes this increased risk, the UCLA report hypothesizes that the heavier we are, the more fat gets deposited in our brain, while the blood vessels which deliver its fuel become narrower. This over time causes brain cells to die and vital connections to be lost.

Those with a BMI of between 25 and 30 have a two-fold increase in risk of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago also point to the fact that the proteins responsible for breaking down fats in our livers are also found in the memory and learning centers of our brains, and people with excess abdominal fat have a lower count of these proteins. Therefore, the more we carry around the midriff, the less of these vital proteins we have to carry out important brain function.

Keep the brain busy

The brain in fact has the ability to generate new brain cells, and when we keep the brain busy by feeding it with new information and experiences, it is constantly having to change and recognize new neural pathways to process its new learning – think of it as a “brain workout“. Where am I going with this? According to America’s National Institute on Aging, regularly engaging in a mental activity that challenges the brain can help lower your risk of dementia.

While there is no hard and fast advice as to what specific activities to undertake, several studies have suggested that learning another language is one of the most effective things you can do in this respect. Once again referencing the American journal Neurology, a study from the publication concluded that bilingualism plays a clear role in delaying “age at onset of dementia”.

Stay social

There are a number of studies which suggest that while establishing and maintaining strong and varied social connections may not hold off the onset of Alzheimer’s, it can in fact protect us against its symptoms of cognitive decline. In the biggest study of its kind, researchers at Rush University Alzheimer’s Disease Center followed 89 elderly people with Alzheimer’s, monitoring the effects of their social relationships in relation to the development of the disease.

The research involved monitoring the subjects’ social activity and documenting their overall level of brain function, and then looking at their brains after death. The findings are thought provoking, because while the more social of the Alzheimer’s sufferers were noted to have considerably higher levels of brain function even in the later stages of the disease, when their brains were examined after death they were found to be just as equally riddled with diseased plaques and tangles (classic hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease) as those participants who socialized less.

It is thought that this is because social interaction helps to stimulate the brain into making new connections that may compensate for its decline in other areas. Or to put it another way, having an active social life can provide a protective reserve in the brain as the degenerative nature of the disease continues to progress elsewhere. Worth a mention here is that dancing, in particular, has been shown to be an exceptionally good social interaction for the brain.

Treat your body like a temple

Unfortunately there are a couple of risk factors for Alzheimer’s that are simply out of our hands, the first being genetics and the other being old age (the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years from the age of 65). However, the suggestions listed above have been shown to reduce risk factors even in those with a family history of the disease, and we know that the best defense against diseases that come with ageing – and against most of the more serious non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – is treating your body with the highest level of respect.

Also note that the research shows it is a combination of the above that has the greatest effect. That is, a combination of physical and mental activity, social engagement and a healthy diet, is far more effective than any of these factors on their own in protecting us against Alzheimer’s and other illnesses.

Whether you stay healthy or not as you grow older – or really at any stage in your life – is mainly down to two factors: knowing what a good lifestyle is and isn’t (educating yourself), and having the discipline to live accordingly. The latter is very difficult, but anything worth having  (and health certainly is worth having) is worth putting in the effort for.

 

Graham-150x150About Dr. Simpson

Graham Simpson, M.D. is the Chief Medical Officer of West-Martin Longevity. He is also the Founder & Medical Director of the innovative Intelligent Health Center, Dubai, UAE.

Dr. Simpson graduated from the University of Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Emergency Medicine, and Age Management Medicine (A4M). He is a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) and is a licensed homeopath. Dr. Simpson has also taught as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno.

He is the author of WellMan (Live Longer by Controlling Inflammation); co-author of Spa Medicine with Dr. Stephen Sinatra; and the forthcoming Reversing CardioMetabolic Disease.

Dr. Simpson was the Founder of PrimalMD; the Founder of the Eternity Medicine Institute; Paleo4me; and the Inflamaging Physician Network. He is a Consultant to Cenegenics, Inc

He has practiced I.N.T.E.G.R.A.L. Health for many years and remains committed to delivering Proactive Health to physicians and clients around the world.

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