If you’ve ever cared for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, you know the heartbreak of watching the person you once knew gradually fade away. It’s also likely that you’re worried the same fate may be in your future. The fear of Alzheimer’s is a common concern among anyone over the age of 60, and that’s especially true among those with first-hand experience with this mind-robbing disease.
While you might hope for a cure by the time you reach your own golden years, there’s currently no magic bullet on the horizon from the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, existing Alzheimer’s drugs only provide a very modest benefit, if any benefit at all.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease? The leading theory—and the one researchers have used as a basis for developing drugs—revolves around the buildup of a protein in the brain known as beta-amyloid. Over time, it’s assumed that this buildup creates plaques that destroy neurons and their connections in the brain. But recent findings throw some doubt on this theory. That’s because one of the main players studying beta-amyloids actually faked his research into one well-known type of amyloid protein. While that’s a setback, this revelation doesn’t totally undermine the basic amyloid theory. It may, however, explain why every single disease-modifying trial of Alzheimer’s has so far failed.
Unhealthy levels of another protein in the brain, called tau, may also contribute to Alzheimer’s. Everyone has tau in their brains—and that’s a good thing. Tau binds to and stabilizes structures called microtubules, which support communication between neurons. In Alzheimer’s, however, chemical changes cause tau to detach from these microtubules and stick to other tau proteins, forming tangles that block the communication between neurons and affect memory.
Even though beta-amyloid and tau get all the attention, two other factors also play a role in the development of this progressive and deadly disease: chronic inflammation and reduced blood flow. Chronic inflammation has been linked to a number of serious conditions, including COPD, diabetes, heart disease, and inflammatory bowel issues. Now science has added Alzheimer’s to that list. In a normally functioning brain, damaged cells and proteins—including excess beta-amyloid proteins—are removed by cellular trash collectors called microglia glial cells. But chronic inflammation can cause these microglia cells to fail. This causes a buildup of waste, debris, and beta-amyloid, triggering even more inflammation in the brain. This creates a vicious cycle that not only accelerates the buildup of damaged proteins in the brain but also destroys neurons and undermines the integrity of the blood-brain barrier.
Poor blood flow to the brain can also contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and another type of dementia called vascular dementia. Healthy cognitive function depends on the steady flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Recent studies suggest that atherosclerosis—a condition that narrows and stiffens arteries, including those going to the brain—can reduce this vital blood flow and may be an independent cause of Alzheimer’s.
Do This to Reduce Your Risk of Alzheimer’s
If you have a family history of dementia or carry a specific gene linked to Alzheimer’s (APOE4), you may feel doomed to develop the disease. But here’s the good news: you actually have more power over your risk than you might think. Two new studies in the journal Neurology show that trading in unhealthy habits for better choices can dramatically reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. In other words, your family history or genetic profile doesn’t determine your destiny!
The first study—which tracked more than 500,000 people for 11 years—focused on physical and mental activity. Physical activity included housework, walking, climbing stairs, or engaging in regular exercise. Mental activity included the use of computers and smartphones, as well as participation in social activities. At the end of the study, researchers found that people who exercised regularly or lived an active lifestyle reduced their risk of dementia by 35 percent. Housecleaning decreased the risk by 21 percent. And daily visits with family or friends lowered risk by 15 percent.
In the second study, more than 72,000 healthy adults provided data on the foods they typically ate. After 10 years, the researchers discovered that those whose diets were filled with chips, cookies, sugary sodas, and other ultra-processed foods had an increased risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. But the researchers found that replacing just 20 percent of ultra-processed foods with unprocessed or minimally processed food dropped the risk of Alzheimer’s by 34 percent and the risk of vascular dementia by an impressive 39 percent. These findings provide yet another reason to opt for unprocessed or minimally processed foods low in sugar and unhealthy fats.
Add These Nootropics
Nootropics are defined as substances that improve cognition, particularly executive functions like attention, memory, creativity, and motivation. Although there are a number of supplements claiming to be nootropics, the following nutrients have the scientific research to back up their efficacy in maintaining healthy brain function, while potentially preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Curcumin. This golden anti-inflammatory compound from the spice turmeric has been shown to benefit the brain in multiple ways. In addition to reducing inflammation, it’s also been found to keep potentially damaging oxidative stress in check while increasing blood flow in the brain. More recent studies suggest that the phenolic compounds in curcumin not only protect against oxidative damage in the brain; they may also help prevent the accumulation of damaged beta-amyloid proteins. The problem is, ordinary curcumin isn’t well absorbed by the body. To make sure you’re getting all of this compound’s brain benefits, look for a supplement that contains curcumin that’s been blended with turmeric essential oil containing ar-turmerones. This proprietary and highly absorbable form of curcumin is listed on Supplement Facts labels as BCM-95.
Korean Red Ginseng. Long used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to boost energy, Korean red ginseng has been recently found to guard against Alzheimer’s disease by preventing the formation of excess beta-amyloid, downregulating inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, and protecting the mitochondria in neurons. Other studies suggest that Korean red ginseng may even help those already suffering from the disease. One of these studies, which appeared in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that Korean red ginseng improved frontal-lobe function in Alzheimer’s patients. The frontal lobe is responsible for voluntary movement, expressive language, and higher executive functions like planning, organizing, and controlling responses. Other investigations suggest that this herb may improve overall cognition, as well as immediate and delayed recall. For best results, choose a bioavailable supplement like HRG80 that provides full-spectrum, solvent-free Korean red ginseng from the whole root.
Omega-3s. These healthy fatty acids provide a multitude of benefits. One key omega-3, known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is especially important for cognition. Yet studies report that people with Alzheimer’s have declining DHA levels. Research shows that omega-3 supplementation can help correct this DHA deficiency and may lower total beta-amyloid levels in the brain. Plus, some studies have shown that omega-3 supplementation improves cognition. But not all omega-3 supplements are equally beneficial. Some contain traces of pesticides and toxins. Others may be rancid. Get the protection you pay for with a pure omega-3 supplement made from North Atlantic salmon. Find one that is bound to phospholipids, with added peptides that support better focus and mood.
Rosemary. Known as “the memory herb,” rosemary significantly enhances memory and increases mental alertness. The secret to the herb’s effectiveness is carnosic acid, which protects the brain from oxidative damage caused by free radicals. One study that appeared in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that a low dose of rosemary effectively improved the speed of retrieving memories in elderly subjects. Other research suggests that rosemary may also help prevent brain aging. While this herb is promising for Alzheimer’s patients, more studies are needed before it’s used as a stand-alone remedy.
Sage. Research suggests that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of this herb can enhance cognition and may protect against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Preliminary studies have found that the compounds in sage shield the brain against inflammation and beta-amyloid damage, thus improving memory. Supplementing with sage has also been found to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a key molecule that helps maintain the brain’s ability to learn and remember.
Taking steps today to protect your brain may help prevent Alzheimer’s tomorrow. And if you’re worried that you may already be on the road to memory loss, the strategies listed above may help boost brain function and ease your fears.
Could It Be Alzheimer’s?
Can’t find your keys? Misplaced your glasses? While many people worry that these senior moments are an early sign of Alzheimer’s, it’s typically not the case. The National Institutes on Aging cites the following symptoms as a cause for concern:
- Memory loss
- Poor judgment leading to bad decisions
- Loss of spontaneity and sense of initiative
- Taking longer to complete normal daily tasks
- Repeating questions
- Trouble handling money and paying bills
- Wandering and getting lost
- Mood and personality changes
- Increased anxiety or aggression without cause
If you find yourself experiencing one or more of these symptoms, especially if you have a family history of dementia, consult your health-care provider.