WORLD Alzheimer's Day is commemorated around the globe on September 21 every year. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. This incurable, degenerative, and terminal disease was first described by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer in 1906, and was named after him.
Although Alzheimer's disease was first identified more than 100 years ago, research into its symptoms, causes, risk factors and treatment has only gained momentum in the last 30 years.
In last year's World Alzheimer Report, Alzheimer's Disease International estimated that there were 35.6 million people living with dementia worldwide in 2010, with the numbers expected to increase to 65.7 million by 2030 and 115.4 million by 2050.
Nearly two-thirds of sufferers live in low- and middle-income countries, where the largest increases in numbers are set to occur.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's
Alzheimer's disease can affect different people in different ways, but the most common symptom pattern begins with difficulty in remembering new information. This is because disruption of brain cell function usually begins in regions involved in forming new memories.
As damage spreads, individuals experience other difficulties. The following are some warning signs of Alzheimer's:
- Progressive memory loss, especially forgetting recently learned information
- Behavioural, mood and personality changes
- Difficulty finding the right words and performing familiar tasks
- Misplacing things or putting them in unusual places, like milk in the bathroom
- Problems with abstract thinking, loss of initiative and poor judgment
- Getting lost in familiar surroundings, and disorientation
Free radicals and Alzheimer's connection
Harmful free radicals from the environment is a major cause of ill-health, including Alzheimer's disease. We are constantly bombarded by free radicals from exposure to sunlight (UV) and pollution to radiation. Stress and poor diet also contributes to oxidative stress.
What is oxidative stress? It is physiological stress on the body that is caused by free radicals inadequately neutralised by antioxidants.
Oxidative stress is an important factor in the development of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease is characterised by two key abnormalities: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.
Amyloid plaques are clumps of a protein known as beta-amyloid. These plaques are found in the tissue between nerve cells in the brain and in degenerating pieces of neurons.
According to a researcher: "Beta-amyloid is aggregated and produces more free radicals in the presence of free radicals; beta-amyloid toxicity is eliminated by free radical scavengers." (Grundman M, 2000).
Hence, it makes sense that antioxidants can help reduce the oxidative stress in the body. Below are some nutrients that can help:
- Grape seed extract has demonstrated remarkable success in blocking the formation of senile plaques. One of the most potent antioxidants available, grape seed extract possesses 20 times more free radical-fighting power than vitamin E and 50 times more than vitamin C (Shi J et al, 2003). This antioxidant activity suggests that grape seed extract should become a part of any regimen to optimise brain health.
- Alpha-lipoic acid. In one study of patients with Alzheimer's disease, those given 600mg of alpha-lipoic acid daily for 12 months had a stabilisation of cognitive function. A follow-up study, which increased the number of patients and extended the observation period to 48 months, found that the progression of the disease was "dramatically lower" among those taking alpha-lipoic acid, compared to those with no treatment.
- Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant. Deficiencies of vitamin E in patients who have Alzheimer's disease are associated with increased lipid peroxidation, which appears to cause increased platelet aggregation, a hallmark of Alzheimer's (Ciabattoni G et al, 2006).
Community studies have shown that high doses of vitamin E, along with vitamin C, may help prevent Alzheimer's disease in the healthy elderly (Landmark K, 2006).
Combination therapy with vitamins C and E has been shown to reduce lipid peroxidation in people who have mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease (Galbusera C et al, 2004). High doses of vitamin E alone, up to 2000 International Units (IU) daily, slow the mental deterioration of patients who have Alzheimer's disease (Grundman M, 2000).
- Vitamin C is well known for its antioxidant properties. Although it has not been as widely studied as vitamin E, several studies have examined their combined potential.
One observational study showed that supplementation with 400 IU/day of vitamin E and 500mg/day of vitamin C reduced the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease (Boothby LA et al, 2005). The synergistic effect of vitamin C and vitamin E was examined by another team of researchers who found that using vitamins E and C in combination was associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease, but neither supplement used alone had any protective effect (Zandi PP et al, 2004).
Tips to keep disease at bay
Today, research on Alzheimer's disease focuses not only on the role of oxidative stress, but also on inflammation. Alzheimer's disease, like so many other diseases, is being redefined as an inflammatory condition in which excess pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body cause damage to normal healthy cells.
In recent years, nutrients such as standardised water-soluble curcumin (turmeric) extracts and resveratrol have shown early promise as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compound in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
Tips to keep Alzheimer's disease at bay
- Regular physical exercise. Research shows that exercise can help protect the brain from Alzheimer's disease. According to one study, people between the ages of 20 and 60 who were less active during their leisure time nearly quadrupled their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
- Healthy diet. Eat more antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetable. Antioxidants are known to fight free radicals, which cause the oxidative stress associated with many illnesses such as Alzheimer's. If one does not have a good diet, it is best to take some antioxidant supplements as nutritional insurance.
- Mental stimulation. Doing crossword puzzles, riddles or even learning an instrument are some examples of mentally stimulating exercise. Scientists believe that constantly challenging your brain helps make it less prone to the lesions associated with Alzheimer's disease.
- Stress management. Stress that is chronic or severe takes a heavy toll on the brain, leading to shrinkage in a key memory area of the brain known as the hippocampus, hampering nerve cell growth, and increasing the risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
- Active social life. Human beings are highly social creatures. We don't thrive in isolation, and neither does our brain. Studies show that the more connected we are, the better we fare on tests of memory and cognition. Staying socially active may even protect against Alzheimer's disease and dementia, so make your social life a priority.