Doctor’s Tip: Preventing Alzheimer’s disease
One of the diseases that older people fear the most is Alzheimer’s, first described in 1906 by the German physician Alois Alzheimer. An autopsy on his first dementia patient showed amyloid plaques and protein tangles in the brain, plus atherosclerosis of the cerebral (brain) arteries. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-70 percent of dementia, with conditions such as multiple small strokes accounting for the rest. The first symptom of Alzheimer’s is short term memory loss, and additional neuro-psychiatric symptoms appear with time.
As is often the case in our pharmaceutical-centric medical culture, patients and physicians are waiting for a magic pill to prevent or reverse the disease, even though reversal is probably unrealistic because once brain damage occurs it is usually irreversible. Like so many other maladies in Western societies, the way to prevent Alzheimer’s is a change in lifestyle, particularly what we eat. Here is a summary of what we currently know about this disease, based on Dr. Michael Greger’s book “How Not to Die” and his website nutritionfacts.org.
• The risk factors for Alzheimer’s are the same as for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries): hypertension; high cholesterol; smoking; diabetes; inflammation; sedentary lifestyle. Alzheimer’s patients who have their cardiovascular risk factors treated aggressively have slower mental decline.
• The brains of Alzheimer’s patients have more cholesterol than those of normal people, and Alzheimer’s might prove to be a vascular disease. Cholesterol seeds the clumping of amyloid plaque. High cholesterol in middle age triples the risk of Alzheimer’s.
• Fifteen percent of the U.S. population have the ApoE4 gene, which makes the protein that carries cholesterol to the brain. One copy of ApoE4 triples the risk of Alzheimer’s — two copies of this gene (one from each parent) increases Alzheimer’s by nine-fold. But while “genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.” Nigeria has the highest incidence of the ApoE4 gene, but a very low incidence of Alzheimer’s due to their plant-based, whole food (unprocessed) diet. (When Nigerians eat the standard American diet — S.A.D. — the ApoE4 gene is turned on and they tend to get Alzheimer’s.
• The lowest rate of Alzheimer’s is in rural India — thought to be due to their plant-based diet and presence of turmeric in the curry they eat (they average ¼ tsp. of turmeric a day).
• Phytonutrients (phyto = plant) such as anti-oxidants help prevent Alzheimer’s, and are particularly abundant in intensely-colored plants such as greens and berries; and in intensely flavored food such as herbs and spices.
• The Harvard Women’s Health Study found that higher saturated fat intake from dairy, meat and processed foods was associated with cognitive decline.
• Heavy metals such as iron and copper are concentrated in amyloid plaque and tangles, but only in people on an animal-based diet. Avoid supplements such as multivitamin and mineral pills that contain these elements. Also, cook with ceramic, stainless steel or glass cookware and avoid copper pans and iron skillets. Although not 100 percent proven, aluminum might be a problem too, so to be safe avoid aluminum foil and cookware.
• Saffron has been used in traditional Persian medicine for cognitive decline. Thirty milligrams a day works just as well as the current Alzheimer’s drugs such as Namenda. (The current drugs are minimally effective and often have side effects — which saffron doesn’t).
• In a small study, people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s symptoms were given 1 teaspoon of turmeric a day, and the symptoms resolved — which is unheard of.
• Regular exercise has clearly been shown to help prevent and even improve Alzheimer’s.
In summary, if you’re concerned about maintaining normal brain function as you age, don’t wait for the pharmaceutical industry to come up with a magic bullet, which may or may not ever happen (even if it does, it will likely be expensive and have side effects). Instead, do what the journal “Neurobiology of Aging” recommended in 2014: “Vegetables, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), fruits, and whole grains should replace meats and dairy products as primary staples of the diet.”
Dr. Feinsinger is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and other medical issues, and to help people with hospital or other medical bills they don’t understand or think are too high. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.