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Alzheimer's: Early Detection, Risk Factors are Crucial

alzheimer's early detectionRecent research on Alzheimer’s disease places a growing emphasis on early detection. Studies suggests that the best targets for exploring treatments are patients who do not have full-blown Alzheimer's disease, but experience mild symptoms.

Signs of Alzheimer's may develop in the brain 10 to 20 years before symptoms begin.  Research on biomarkers and mild cognitive impairment could be important in coming up with better treatments.  Another area of focus is identifying risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, such as physical inactivity, depression, and smoking.  Midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, low education, and diabetes are other risk factors.

According to CNN:

“Two of the biggest obstacles to finding treatments for Alzheimer's disease are lack of money and difficulty enrolling people in clinical trials, experts say. The United States spends $450 million each year in Alzheimer's research money, compared to $6 billion for cancer, $4 billion for heart disease and $3 billion for HIV/AIDS research.”

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Alzheimer’s disease is the second most feared health condition after cancer, according to a survey by the Harvard School of Public Health -- and understandably so. With no known cure and a terminal prognosis, Alzheimer’s causes your brain cells to degenerate and die, leading to a steady loss of both intellectual and social skills, and, ultimately, death.

New Research Focused on Early Intervention, but Another Strategy is Even Better

With conventional treatments offering little benefit to those already diagnosed with the disease, much of the research presented at the Alzheimer's Association 2011 International Conference was focused on early detection as a primary strategy, noting that signs of Alzheimer's may develop in your brain up to 20 years before symptoms begin.

This is an important point to remember, as most people do not show symptoms until after age 65 and often much later. Close to half of people with Alzheimer's disease are over age 85. This means that when you're in your 50s, 60s and 70s, you may already be developing changes in your brain indicative of this disease … but you may still have time to implement lifestyle changes that could very possibly prevent you from ever developing the disease down the line.

Above and beyond early detection of Alzheimer's should be complete prevention!

What are the Top Alzheimer's Risk Factors?

Another area of focus presented at the Alzheimer's Association 2011 International Conference was identifying risk factors, which is an important way to help you understand ways you could be inadvertently increasing your risk, as many of the risk factors are modifiable.

Among the top risk factors mentioned at the conference include:

  1. Physical Inactivity

    A regular exercise program can slow the development of Alzheimer's by altering the way damaging proteins reside in your brain. Studies show significantly fewer plaques and fewer bits of beta-amyloid peptides, associated with Alzheimer's, in mice that exercised.

    It's been suggested that exercise can trigger a change in the way the amyloid precursor protein is metabolized, thus, slowing down the onset and progression of Alzheimer's. Exercise also increases levels of the protein PGC-1alpha. New research has shown that people with Alzheimer's have less PGC-1alpha in their brains, and cells that contain more of the protein produce less of the toxic amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer's.

    The research on this is very strong; one study found performing moderate exercise during midlife led to a 39 percent decreased risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, while moderate exercise late in life was associated with a 32 percent lower risk.

    I strongly recommend reviewing the Peak Fitness Technique in addition to regular strength and flexibility training.
  2. Diabetes and Obesity

    Insulin-resistant people with type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop plaques in their brains that are associated with Alzheimer's disease. Previous research has also found a strong correlation between body mass index (BMI) and high levels of beta-amyloid, the protein that tends to accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, causing plaque buildup. It is believed that beta-amyloid destroys nerve cells, contributing to the cognitive and behavioral problems typical of the disease.

    Further, fat cells produce substances that affect your immune system, which in excess trigger inflammation. And inflammation in your brain is thought to be one of the precursors to dementia.
  3. Depression

    Depressed people are twice as likely to develop certain forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease and depression may not seem to have much in common at face value, other than both being brain disorders, but they share a similarity that could easily be remedied: they're both linked to low vitamin D, which I'll discuss below.
  4. High Blood Pressure

    Hypertension fuels a kind of scarring linked to later development of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. Those scars can start building up in middle age, decades before memory problems will appear.

Top Strategies to Significantly Lower Your Risk

What is interesting and important to understand about chronic disease is that it very rarely exists in a bubble. What I mean is, if you are developing changes in your brain that are indicative of Alzheimer's, you're probably also experiencing signs of insulin resistance, such as diabetes or obesity.

And, meanwhile, you may also be showing signs of heart disease, such as high blood pressure, as, very often, chronic diseases are intricately intertwined; they're the product of imbalances in your body that are manifesting, likely after years spent festering just below the surface.

This can actually be a good thing, however, as implementing a few simple techniques address the underlying causes of multiple chronic diseases, and Alzheimer's is no exception. This includes:

  • Limiting fructose: You simply MUST keep your level below 25 grams per day. This toxic influence is serving as the master regulator of brain toxicity and triggering numerous chronic diseases. Since the average person is exceeding this recommendation by 300% this is a pervasive and serious issue. I view this as the MOST important step you can take.
  • Keeping your fasting insulin levels below 3. This is indirectly related to fructose, as it will clearly lead to insulin resistance. However other sugars, grains and lack of exercise are also factors here.
  • Optimizing vitamin D: In 2007 researchers at the University of Wisconsin uncovered strong links between low levels of vitamin D in Alzheimer's patients and poor outcomes on cognitive tests. Scientists launched the study after family members of Alzheimer's patients who were treated with large doses of prescription vitamin D reported that they were acting and performing better than before.

    Researchers believe that optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important chemicals in your brain and protect brain cells. Vitamin D receptors have been identified throughout the human body, and that includes in your brain. Metabolic pathways for vitamin D exist in the hippocampus and cerebellum of the brain, areas that are involved in planning, processing of information, and the formation of new memories.

    Sufficient vitamin D is also imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation, and, as mentioned earlier, other research has discovered that people with Alzheimer's tend to have higher levels of inflammation in their brains.
  • Eating a nutritious diet, rich in folate, such as the one described in my nutrition plan. Strict vegetarian diets have been shown to increase your Alzheimer's risk, whereas diets high in omega-3's lower your risk. However, vegetables, without question, are your best form of folate, and we should all eat plenty of fresh raw veggies every day. It is best to get your folate from foods like vegetables rather than a multi vitamin.
  • Consuming high-quality animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil. (I recommend avoiding most fish because although fish is naturally high in omega-3, most fish stocks are now severely contaminated with mercury.) High intake of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA helps by preventing cell damage caused by Alzheimer's disease, thereby slowing down its progression, and lowering your risk of developing the disorder. Researchers have also said DHA "dramatically reduces the impact of the Alzheimer's gene."

Other factors that also play a role, and are easily modifiable, include:

Avoid and remove mercury from your body. Dental amalgam fillings are one of the major sources of mercury, however you should be healthy prior to having them removed. Once you have adjusted to following the diet described in my optimized nutrition plan, you can follow the mercury detox protocol and then find a biological dentist to have your amalgams removed. Avoid aluminum, such as antiperspirants, non-stick cookware, etc. Avoid flu vaccinations as most contain both mercury and aluminum!
Avoid anticholinergic drugs. Drugs that block acetylcholine, a nervous system neurotransmitter, have been shown to increase your risk of dementia. These drugs include certain night-time pain relievers, antihistamines, sleep aids, certain antidepressants, medications to control incontinence, and certain narcotic pain relievers. Eat blueberries. Wild blueberries, which have high anthocyanin and antioxidant content, are known to guard against Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases. Just don't overdose on them as they do have fructose and it is possible to overeat them. Challenge your mind daily. Mental stimulation, especially learning something new, such as learning to play an instrument or a new language, is associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's. Researchers suspect that mental challenge helps to build up your brain, making it less susceptible to the lesions associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Astaxanthin. The antioxidant astaxanthin exhibits exceptionally potent free-radical scavenging activity, and protects your cells, organs and body tissues from oxidative damage. In this way it impacts many aspects of health, but one of the most exciting could be its impact on your brain.    

Is There Any Help for Those Already Affected?

Alzheimer's disease is currently at epidemic levels. In the United States, someone develops this disease every 69 seconds, and by 2050 this is expected to increase to a new case every 33 seconds, according to the Alzheimer's Association's 2011 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures. The disease is currently at epidemic proportions, with 5.4 million Americans -- including one in eight people aged 65 and over -- living with Alzheimer's disease. By 2050, this is expected to jump to 16 million, and in the next 20 years it is projected that Alzheimer's will affect one in four Americans.

Unfortunately, existing treatments are often of little to no benefit whatsoever. For instance, a recent study on Memantine (brand name Namenda), a widely used Alzheimer's drug, showed no improvement in patients' mental function or their ability to perform everyday tasks compared to placebo. Even among moderate to severe Alzheimer's patients, for which the drug is approved to treat, the researchers found only "meager" improvements.

Again, because of the very limited treatments, and no available cure as of yet, for Alzheimer's, I strongly suggest you take every step you can to prevent it from happening to you in the first place.

But for those already affected, there are a couple of strategies to consider:

  • Alpha Lipoic Acid: A powerful antioxidant and one of the most effective free radical scavengers, in one study of patients with Alzheimer's disease, those given 600 mg of alpha lipoic acid daily for 12 months had a stabilization of cognitive function. A follow-up study, which increased the number of patients in the study and extended the observation period to 48 months, showed the progression of the disease was "dramatically lower" among those taking alpha lipoic acid, compared to those with no treatment or those taking choline-esterase inhibitor drugs.
  • Curcumin: The pigment that gives spicy turmeric its yellow-orange color, curcumin may help inhibit the accumulation of destructive beta amyloids in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, as well as break up existing plaques.

    Researchers determined:

    • Curcumin is more effective in inhibiting the formation of the protein fragments than many other potential Alzheimer's treatments
    • The low molecular weight and polar structure of curcumin allows it to penetrate the blood-brain barrier effectively and bind to beta amyloid
    • Alzheimer's symptoms caused by inflammation and oxidation are eased by curcumin's powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
    Interestingly, it appears that curcumin may be even more effective when used with vitamin D. This can also be used preventively.
  • Coconut Oil: According to Dr. Mary Newport, D.M, whose husband was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, coconut oil may be KEY for not only preventing but even reversing this disease. Certain cells in the brains of those with Alzheimer's become increasingly unable to use their primary energy source, glucose. Without fuel, these brain cells die, contributing to the mental degeneration. But there's an alternative source of energy, known as ketones.

    Your body produces ketones naturally when you deprive it of carbohydrates, and you can boost ketone production by consuming medium-chain triglycerides, such as coconut oil.

It's interesting to note, too, that your brain requires regular challenges to stay fit, just like your muscles. Whether you have a form of dementia or are interested in prevention, it would be wise to engage yourself in mentally challenging activities on a regular basis, whether that be taking a continuing education course, learning a new hobby, or traveling.

As reported by CNN, Dr. Steven DeKosky, vice president and dean of the University of Virginia's School of Medicine, said at an Alzheimer's forum at the National Press Foundation:

"We know that highly intelligent people have more tolerance to plaque buildup and to loss of energy in their brains than people with lower levels of intelligence and less education. Their brain basically fights it off and finds some other ways to get the things done."

So mental challenge may be another key to the puzzle; fortunately, "working out" your brain is easy to do and can add interest, enjoyment, and fulfillment to your life at the same time.

+ Sources and References
  • CNN July 25, 2011
  • Alzheimer's Association 2011 International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease, Paris, France July 16-21, 2011