For years, scientists from around the world have investigated various causes of Alzheimer's disease. Cardiovascular disease factors, such as hypertension, stroke and heart failure... other neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's disease... accumulated toxins and heavy metals, such as aluminum, lead and mercury... nutrient deficiencies, including vitamins B and E... infections, such as the herpes virus and the stomach bacterium H. pylori... and head injuries each have been considered at one time or another to be a possible contributor to the development of this mind-robbing disease.
However, as researchers continue to piece together the results of literally thousands of studies, one particular theory is now emerging as perhaps the most plausible and convincing of them all in explaining why some people-and not others-develop Alzheimer's disease.
A Pattern Emerges
Five million Americans are now living with Alzheimer's, and the number of cases is skyrocketing. Interestingly, so are the rates of obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome (a constellation of risk factors including elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels and abdominal fat).
What's the potential link? Doctors have long suspected that diabetes increases risk for Alzheimer's. The exact mechanism is not known, but many experts believe that people with diabetes are more likely to develop Alzheimer's because their bodies don't properly use blood sugar (glucose) and the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin.
Now research shows increased dementia risk in people with high blood sugar-even if they do not have diabetes. A problem with insulin appears to be the cause. How does insulin dysfunction affect the brain? Neurons are starved of energy, and there's an increase in brain cell death, DNA damage, inflammation and the formation of plaques in the brain-a main characteristic of Alzheimer's disease.
An Alzheimer's-fighting regimen
Even though experimental treatments with anti-diabetes drugs that improve insulin function have been shown to reduce symptoms of early Alzheimer's disease, it is my belief, as an integrative physician, that targeted nondrug therapies are preferable in preventing the brain degeneration that leads to Alzheimer's and fuels its progression. These approaches won't necessarily reverse Alzheimer's, but they may help protect your brain if you are not currently fighting this disease... or help slow the progression of early-stage Alzheimer's.
My advice includes...
Follow a low-glycemic (low sugar) diet. This is essential for maintaining healthy glucose and insulin function as well as supporting brain and overall health. An effective way to maintain a low-sugar diet is to use the glycemic index (GI), a scale that ranks foods according to how quickly they raise blood sugar levels.
Here's what happens: High-GI foods (such as white rice, white potatoes and refined sugars) are rapidly digested and absorbed. As a result, these foods cause dangerous spikes in blood sugar levels.
Low-GI foods (such as green vegetables... fiber-rich foods including whole grains... and plant proteins including legumes, nuts and seeds) are digested slowly, so they gradually raise blood sugar and insulin levels. This is critical for maintaining glucose and insulin function and controlling inflammation.
Helpful: www.glycemicindex.com gives glucose ratings of common foods and recipes.
Consider trying brain-supporting nutrients and herbs.* These supplements, which help promote insulin function, can be used alone or taken together for better results (dosages may be lower if supplements are combined due to the ingredients' synergistic effects)...
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is an antioxidant shown to support insulin sensitivity and protect neurons from inflammation-related damage.
Typical dosage: 500mg to 1,000 mg per day.
Chromium improves glucose regulation.
Typical dosage: 350 micrograms (mcg) to 700 mcg per day.
Alginates from seaweed help reduce glucose spikes and crashes.
Typical dosage: 250 mg to 1,000 mg before meals.
L-Taurine, an amino acid, helps maintain healthy glucose and lipid (blood fat) levels.
Typical dosage: l,000 mg to 2,000 mg per day.
Kick up your heels!
Regular exercise, such as walking, swimming and tennis, is known to improve insulin function and support cognitive health by increasing circulation to the brain. Dancing, however, may be the ultimate brain-protective exercise. Why might dancing be better than other brain-body coordination exercises, such as tennis? Because dancing is mainly noncompetitive, there isn't the added stress of contending with an opponent, which increases risk for temporary cognitive impairment.
Best: Aerobic dances with a social component, such as Latin, swing or ballroom performed at least three times weekly for 90 minutes each session. (Dancing for less time also provides some brain benefits.) If you don't like dancing, brisk walking for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is also shown to help protect the brain against dementia.
*Consult your doctor before trying these supplements, especially if you take any medications or have a chronic health condition, such as liver or kidney disease. If he/she is not well versed in the use of these therapies, consider seeing an integrative physician. To find one near you, consult The Institute for Functional Medicine, wwwfunctional~dicine.org.
Free courses: In addition to getting regular physical activity, it's helpful to learn challenging new material to "exercise" the brain. For 1,150 free online courses provided by professors at top universities such as Stanford and Johns Hopkins, go to www.openculture.com/ free online courses. Subjects include art history, geography, international relations and biology.