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Preventative Medicine

There are Risk Factors You Can Control!

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common neurodegenerative disease worldwide. A large number of people are living with AD and with each passing year, another 25,000 Canadians will be diagnosed. Worse yet, this number is expected to increase considerably as a reflection of the aging population.


AD is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that causes a decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. AD is characterized by the accumulation of two types of protein in the brain: tangles (tau) and plaques (beta-amyloid) and the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain.


Symptoms of AD usually develop slowly, worsening over time, progressing from simple forgetfulness to widespread brain impairment. The symptoms, the order in which they appear, and the duration of each stage vary from person to person.


There are some major risk factors beyond control:


Age: The strongest risk factor for developing AD is aging. Most cases begin after age 60 and as you age the risk increases. It makes sense since your body’s self-repair mechanism effectiveness declines as you age.


Genetics: Certain genes make you more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Researchers have identified three genes that determine definitively whether you will have Alzheimer’s, and all three relate to amyloid-beta production.


Gender: There has been some debate that women may be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men but more research is needed to determine if this is accurate, or due to other factors.


Medical conditions: Some medical conditions increase your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. These include Parkinson's disease, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, chronic kidney disease and HIV.


As with most degenerative conditions, there are many risk factors that are within your power to control:


Physical activity: Moderately vigorous exercising for at least 30 minutes, three to four days per week.


Toxins: Alcohol and smoke are both toxins your body doesn’t need. They tax your detoxification systems putting them under stress. Try and reduce alcohol consumption and eliminate smoking of all kinds.


Blood: Keep your blood healthy. Have your doctor check your blood parameters regularly and make sure they are in the healthy range. (blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides)


Weight: Keeping your weight in check will help all your body systems stay healthy. Making healthy food choices by eating a balanced diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits; whole grains; olive oil; nuts; legumes; fish; with moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, dairy. Try keeping red meat to a minimum and eliminate processed foods.


Be socially active: Keep meeting people and spending time doing activities with them. Keeping social circles active helps to keep your brain fit and engaged.


Challenge your brain: Keep trying to build new pathways by learning new things and pushing your brain. Word searches, Sudoku, crosswords, math games and the like all keep your brain fit. Try taking classes to learn new concepts or really challenge yourself by learning something completely new like a language or skill set (piloting, motorcycle driving, computer coding, etc.)


Reduce stress: Stress in small amounts is a healthy motivator. When it is constant and serious it causes unhealthy chemical release and inflammation. Keep your stress to healthy levels.


Sleep well: Your body (and brain) needs sleep to refresh, recharge and repair. Unfortunately getting less sleep or sleeping poorly is tied to an increase in brain levels of beta-amyloid (one of the proteins of concern in AD).


There are several medications that can help alleviate some of the symptoms, however, despite the long years of research, there is currently no cure for AD nor can its progression be reversed. Non-drug therapies (such as herbal remedies, aromatherapy, acupuncture, massage, music etc.) hold vast potential for AD but a lack of clinical data prevents us from truly understanding their safety and effectiveness.


Some of the non-drug treatments that have been studied include:


-Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are naturally occurring fats that are abundant in coconut oil. Our bodies rapidly convert them into ketones, which can be used as an energy source by the brain. Some evidence suggests that patients with dementia might find short-term benefit using MCTs.


-Huperzine A is an alkaloid extract derived from moss (Huperzia serrata) that can improve the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Studies suggest that huperzine A may improve memory and protect nerve cells, which could slow the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's but long time safety use information is lacking.


-Omega 3 essential fatty acids can help prevent cognitive decline. Unfortunately, your body cannot synthesize omega-3s itself, so it must be incorporated into your diet (olive oil, flax oil and fatty fish) so make sure that you consume plenty of these foods each day.


-Antioxidants, such as vitamins A, E, and C (found in dark coloured fruits and vegetables), may help prevent damage caused by free radicals.


-Curcumin is a compound found in the spice turmeric. It has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that might play a role in the prevention of Alzheimer’s. More research is needed to understand how curcumin reaches the bloodstream and through the blood-brain barrier.

-Myricetin is a polyphenol found in red grapes, cranberries, blueberries, parsley, currants, and walnuts. This compound exhibits a wide range of activities such as powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities suggesting that the compound may be beneficial to protect against diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.


-Ginkgo biloba is derived from the leaves of the Ginkgo tree. A number of small studies have found slight improvements in cognitive function for older adults with dementia but it’s too early to determine its role in preventing or delaying Alzheimer's disease.


-Vitamin E. Although vitamin E isn't effective for preventing Alzheimer's, taking 2,000 international units (IU) daily may help delay progression of the disease.


If you are considering any treatment, you should always consult with a doctor to determine any potential drug interactions or side effects.


Unfortunately the prevalence of Alzheimer disease in our society will only continue to increase. This disease will end up affecting all of us; either directly by us contracting it or indirectly by our loved ones contracting it. Either way, we need to understand the risk factors for Alzheimer’s and do all we can to minimize its effects.

Joel Thuna, MH, is a master Herbalist with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Claude Gallant holds a PhD in Microbiology.