Getting a Head Start in Fighting Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is finally getting the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, too many reports are still negative. To quote from a recent SF Chronicle news article, “It is a fatal, progressive disease for which there is no cure and few drugs offer much help.” All that may be true—for now.


But here is the good news. A number of advances in early-warning detection can lead to effective intervention. Once scientists realized that deterioration in the brain begins two decades or more before memory problems are evident, efforts have focused on earlier diagnosis. Medical imaging––including light-based technology to see inside the living brain, the discovery of new genetic risk factors and functional anatomy are just a few of the latest techniques doctors may use to predict Alzheimer’s five or more years prior to the appearance of symptoms.


Given this kind of information, a person at higher risk of late-onset AD (after age 60) has a head start and is empowered to make decisions. Instead of living in fear and denial, he or she can become an active participant in the fight that will hopefully prevent Alzheimer’s or at least delay its symptoms for years.


Now the good news is getting even better. Relatively modest changes in lifestyle can make a huge difference in preventing Alzheimer’s disease, just as they have for lowering the incidence of cardiovascular and other diseases. A recent study at Heidelberg University (published 10/27/15) found that high cholesterol interacts with the ApoE4 genetic risk factor for AD, but subjects may reduce their risk of both cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease by lowering their cholesterol. “What’s good for the heart is also good for the brain and memory,” Prof. Brenner said. “This appears to be especially important for carriers of the ApoE4 risk factor.”


While this is just the latest example of stressing a better diet, especially one that is low in animal fat but rich in vegetables and fruit, it adds to the meta-analysis of many other studies: the benefits of a diet such as the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by about 20 percent. Supplements, especially Vitamin D often lacking among the elderly, can prevent a cognitive decline that is two to three times faster for those without adequate vitamin D levels, according to a JAMA Neurology report (9/14/15).


Possibly the best news of all is that exercise not only can stop but also can reverse the normal age-related shrinkage of the hippocampus, a key memory center. Even a small amount of regular exercise can reduce the risk of AD by up to 40 percent.


With more baby boomers aging and the cost of dementia care skyrocketing, we can’t afford to wait for new “miracle” drugs. We can get a “head” start now in protecting ourselves against Alzheimer’s.