Notes from Youville: Understanding Alzheimer's Disease
With no clear cause and no known cure, staying active and educated for now appears the best defense against the effects of Alzheimer's.
Youville House resident Anna Pier is no stranger to Alzheimer’s disease. She cared for her husband throughout his long struggle with the disease, and also saw it claim the life of her sister in law.
In September, Anna participated in the “Walk to End Alzheimer’s,” an event in which she has taken part since 2009. Organized by the Alzheimer’s Association, the “Walk” has spread to more than 600 communities nationwide, helping to fund significant advances in our knowledge of Alzheimer’s. But there’s still a long way to go, and no one is more aware of the need for progress in Alzheimer’s care and research than Anna.
“We still don’t really understand how the disease works,” she says. “I do this not just for people in my generation, but also for people in the next generation.”
The next generations, starting with the Baby Boomers, will feel the effects of Alzheimer’s more than anyone. By 2050, it’s expected that 15 million Americans will be living with Alzheimer’s. With this daunting prospect, increased research is more of a priority than ever. The good news is that Alzheimer’s research is relatively young, with the likelihood of further advances on the horizon.
What We Know So Far
A brain affected by Alzheimer’s shows two distinct characteristics: “plaques” and “tangles.”
Plaques consist of a protein called beta-amyloid, which builds up around the connections between nerve cells. Researchers think these dense clusters interfere with cell-to-cell communication. “Tangles” consist of a protein called tau, found within nerve cells. Normally, tau helps transport nutrients from one region of the cell to another along straight tracks. In Alzheimer’s, the tau fibers get tangled. This tangling disrupts the straightness of the tracks, compromising the transport system.
Researchers think that these plaques and tangles play a role in the destruction of brain cells that occurs with Alzheimer’s, leading to the typical Alzheimer’s symptoms: memory loss, difficulty processing information, disorientation relating to space and time, decreased language skills, and loss of physical ability. There is no consensus as to just how plaques and tangles lead to brain cell death, but both are suspected to be among its causes.
What You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s
We still aren’t sure how to prevent, delay or cure Alzheimer’s, and the only certain risk factor seems to be age. Research has suggested that certain lifestyle interventions may play a role in reducing the risk of getting the disease. These interventions include regular exercise, an active social and intellectual lifestyle, low sodium and cholesterol levels, avoiding or quitting smoking and limiting excessive alcohol intake.
The brain is full of arteries, capillaries and other vessels, and there is evidence that poor cardiovascular health may lead to poor brain health over time. By reducing your risk for heart disease, you may also be doing your brain a good turn.
- Regular exercise is a great way to reduce your risk for heart disease and to keep your brain healthy. Exercise also may also play a therapeutic role for those suffering from Alzheimer’s related depression and irritability.
- A diet rich in Omega 3 fatty acids is great for both your heart and your brain. There is evidence Omega 3s found in fish oil prevent age-related cognitive decline.
- A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low fat foods can help keep your arteries and heart healthy.
Researchers believe that a life of learning, intellectual curiosity and social engagement might provide an additional buffer against Alzheimer’s by keeping neural connections alive. Activities like reading, playing a musical instrument, and doing crossword puzzles are great ways to keep your brain limber.
The Coffee Cure
Recent studies have shown links between coffee consumption and brain health. One study in Finland showed that people who drank 3-5 cups of coffee in middle age had as much as 70 percent reduced risk for developing Alzheimer’s as compared with the other participants in the study. Skeptics argue that these studies don’t demonstrate a causal link between coffee and brain health. For example, people who drink a lot of coffee in middle age also tend to have more active lifestyles, which is itself believed to be an indicator for reduced risk.
On the Horizon
While there is no way to stop or cure Alzheimer’s, doctors are prescribing a variety of medications that can temporarily lessen symptoms, improving memory, language skills and mood. Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s research is a busy enterprise, with hundreds of studies currently underway and seeking participants.
To learn more about ways to get involved with helping to end Alzheimer’s, visit www.alz.org.