Natural Ways to Prevent Alzheimer s Disease
We may make uneasy jokes about it, but Alzheimer’s disease is something we all dread. It’s common. Some 4.5 million Americans have it, and many more have cognitive impairment that may be an early sign of it. And it sometimes seems like it’s almost unavoidable. The biggest risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s is simply getting older. Most people diagnosed with it are age 65 or older, and by the time you’re 85, you have a one-in-two chance of having it.
But Alzheimer’s is less inevitable than you might fear, with evidence mounting that diet, exercise and nutritional supplements all play a role in its prevention. New research also suggests that Alzheimer’s takes a longer time to develop than previously thought, with early brain changes seen in middle age. So the best advice for prevention is to start early—by age 50– and stay at it, especially if you have a family history of the disease. But even people in their 60s, 70s and 80s can benefit tremendously from our expert recommendations, which follow below.
What Is Alzheimer’s Anyway?
We know that Alzheimer’s is a build-up of two types of proteins in the brain—“plaques”, which are deposits of the protein beta-amyloid that accumulate in the space between nerve cells, and “tangles”, deposits of the protein tau that accumulate inside of nerve cells. This protein pile-up leads to reduced levels of neurotransmitters, interferes with cells’ ability to communicate with each other, and makes it difficult for them to survive. Autopsies of brains of people with Alzheimer’s show shrinkage in crucial areas of the brain.
What’s not known is exactly why the protein deposits start in the first place. Age and genetic predisposition are the strongest risk factors. If you have a parent or brother or sister who developed the disease, you are two to three times more likely to develop it yourself than someone with no family history. Less is known about avoidable risk factors—the things you can control—but this is an area of intense research, and has produced some findings that you can use right now to lower your own risk. Here’s what you need to know.
Protecting Your Brain with Supplements
The Protective Effects of Fish Oil
Eating fish regularly decreases your chances of developing Alzheimer’s, and research shows that it’s the DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in fish that’s offering the protection. Older people with the highest blood levels of DHA were about half as apt to develop dementia and 39% as apt to develop Alzheimer’s as those with lower blood levels of DHA over a nine-year period, according to Tufts University researchers. Those with the highest blood levels consumed about 180 mg of DHA a day — the amount found in three servings of fish a week. DHA decreases the formation of amyloid plaque, researchers say. (Schaefer, EJ, Arch Neurol, Nov. 2006: 63:1545-50.)
Therapeutic Dosage: We currently recommend taking at least the amount found effective in this study, 180 mg a day of DHA or more if possible. Also, make sure the fish oil you take is certified to be contaminant free. See our Omega-T Fish Oil.
Vitamin D Boosts Mood and Memory
We now know that vitamin D affects virtually all body tissues, including the brain, and a new study suggests that getting enough D can improve some mood and memory problems. In a group of older people, those with low blood levels of vitamin D were more likely to have mild depressive symptoms such as lack of interest or indecisiveness than people with adequate blood levels. Deficiency was also linked to poor thinking skills like memory, judgment and problem-solving. (Wilkins, CH et al: Am J Geriatr Psychiatry 2006; 14:1032-1040)
Therapeutic Dosage: Leading experts now recommend 1,000-2,000 IU of vitamin D a day, with 1,000 IU coming from supplementation. Some 25% to 54% of all adults over age 60 are low in vitamin D.
Folic Acid Adds Years to Your Brain
Dark leafy greens contain folic acid, which protects your brain two ways: it helps to reduce inflammation, by lowering neurotoxic homocysteine levels, and it seems to interfere with expression of the genes involved in dementia.
Dutch researchers studied 818 subjects aged 50 to 70 with high homocysteine levels. They found that those who took 800 mcg of folic acid daily for three years had better memory and information-processing speed than those taking a placebo. The difference was dramatic. On memory tests, those taking 800 mcg of folic acid daily scored as well as people 5.5 years younger. (Durga J. et al, Lancet 2007; 369:208-216.)
Therapeutic Dosage: We recommend 800 mcg, the amount found effective in this study. (If you have a history of cancer, check with your doctor before taking this amount.)
Don’t Forget B12
With so much new research on nutrition and the brain, it’s easy to forget about vitamin B12, a nutrient long known for its critical role in nerve and brain function. B12 is needed to keep nerves working properly throughout the body. Plus, it works with folic acid and vitamin B6 to neutralize neurotoxic homocysteine.
New research from Tufts University shows just how important vitamin B12 really is to brain function. They looked at B12 and folic acid status in people age 60 or older. Not unexpectedly, they found that people’s thinking abilities were best when they had adequate blood levels of both vitamins. Surprisingly though, cognitive abilities were worst in seniors with low vitamin B12 and high serum folate levels. Anemia and impaired thinking were observed nearly five times as often for people with this combination than among people with normal B12 and folate levels. This finding led researchers to conclude that, although it’s important to get enough folic acid, in seniors, too much folic acid and too little B12 is just as bad. You need both. (Morris, MS, et al. Amer J Clin Nutr 2007(Jan); 85:193-200.)
Therapeutic Dosage: We recommend 500 mcg of vitamin B12 daily. Deficiency is more common in seniors than commonly realized, most often because of absorption problems, not a lack of B12 in the diet. Symptoms can occur even with a low-normal blood level and may include any of the following: numbness and tingling in hands and feet, difficulty maintaining balance, depression, poor memory, fatigue and confusion. Don’t write these symptoms off as old age — and don’t let your doctor do it, either!
Curcumin: Better Than Alzheimer’s Drugs!
In India, Alzheimer’s disease rates are reportedly among the world’s lowest. That may be because of those tasty Indian curries.
New research suggests that curcumin, found in turmeric, the main spice in curry, can stop the build-up of destructive beta-amyloid protein in the brain – the plaques that gunk up the works. Curcumin can also break up existing plaques by stimulating immune cells called macrophages to clear out the plaque. Plus, it has unique anti-inflammatory effects. As with many chronic diseases, inflammation appears to play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
These findings suggest that curcumin is more effective in inhibiting plaque formation than many other drugs being tested as Alzheimer’s treatments, the researchers concluded. (July 16, 2007, online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)
Therapeutic Dosage: Optimal dosages have yet to be determined. We currently recommend 200 mg of curcumin a day for Alzheimer’s prevention.
Green Tea’s EGCG Slows Brain Aging
Green tea can slow brain aging, helping to prevent declining memory, cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer’s. In fact, in elderly Japanese men and women, drinking more than two cups a day of green tea slashed odds of cognitive impairment by 54% — more than half! Those who drank less — four to six cups a week, or about one cup a day — still had 38% lower risk of cognitive impairment compared to those drinking less than three cups a week. (A Japanese cup of green tea is small — about 3.2 fluid ounces.)
Green tea’s main protection comes from EGCG, a powerful antioxidant that researchers say helps detoxify beta-amyloid. EGCG also removes toxic iron from brain cells, (Kuriyama, Shinichi, Am J Clin Nutr 2006;83:355-61.) and brand new Israeli research finds that EGCG even reverses brain cell degeneration by spurring new growth, making it a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. (Presented at the Fourth International Scientific Symposium of Tea and Human Health, Sept. 18, in Washington, D.C.)
Therapeutic Dosage: We recommend 450 mg of green tea extract standardized to at least 50% EGCG daily. That’s the amount found in three cups of green tea. See Our High Antioxidant Green Tea Formula.
How Ginkgo Helps Brain Cells
The herb Ginkgo biloba is one of the most widely-used herbs in the world. It can improve blood circulation and protect nerve tissue, including the brain, from aging-related damage.
Research suggests that 120 to 240 mg daily of ginkgo may be as helpful as drugs such as donepezil (Aricept) to people with early stage Alzheimer’s. Though a long-awaited trial, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, and completed in 2002, found that 120 mg of ginkgo taken for six weeks by more than 200 healthy adults over 60 did not improve memory, experts say this study may have been too short, or used too small an amount, to see results. Right now, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is conducting a large study of ginkgo to see if it prevents the onset of dementia and, specifically, Alzheimer’s disease. The study will be completed in July of 2009.
Therapeutic Dosage: We recommend 120-240 mg a day to people age 50 or older. (It’s wise to review your health history and any other medications you are taking with your doctor or pharmacist first.)
Acetyl-L-Carnitine Appears to Help, Too
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) helps to prevent age-related cognitive decline and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. It plays an important role in energy production in the body, and is used to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which has many roles in the body, including muscle and brain function.
Studies show that ALC can protect brain cells from neurotoxicity and oxygen deprivation, preserve a cell’s energy-producing mitochondria, and dramatically rejuvenate mental and physical functioning.
A review of the evidence by British investigators showed that taking ALC improved memory and overall mental functioning in people with mild cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer’s. (Cochrane Database System Review. 2003(2): CD003158.)
Therapeutic Dosage: Effective dosages for Alzheimer’s range from 1,500-4,000 mg a day, usually divided into two or three doses during the day. For simple age-related memory impairment, 1,500-2,000 mg daily has been used. We recommend medical supervision for more than 1,000 mg a day. See Our Acetyl-L-Carnitine.
The Right Kind of Vitamin E Slashes Risk 26%
Why did high-vitamin E foods fend off Alzheimer’s in recent studies, but vitamin E in supplements not do as well?
It’s because most supplements use the wrong type of vitamin E. Most supplements have only one form of E, alpha-tocopherol. However, vitamin E in food consists of a mixture of tocopherols of 4 types — alpha, beta, delta and gamma — as well as tocotrienols, another form of vitamin E.
A mix of tocopherols, as in food, has the most potent anti-Alzheimer’s activity, rather than alpha tocopherol alone, as found in most supplements. Research has found that eating just five extra milligrams a day of vitamin E in foods such as walnuts and unrefined oils cut Alzheimer’s risk 26%, by protecting brain cells from oxidative damage and inflammation. (Morris, M., Amer J Clin Nutrition, Feb. 2006.)
Therapeutic Dosage: For Alzheimer’s disease, doses of up to 2,000 IU a day of vitamin E have been used. However, we recommend no more than 400-800 IU a day of mixed tocopherols and ideally tocotrienols, unless you have medical supervision.
Phosphatidyl Serine Can Make Your Brain 12 Years Younger!
If you’re concerned about age-related memory loss, there’s one supplement that absolutely should be on your list: phosphatidyl serine. More than two dozen studies have demonstrated that phosphatidyl serine may help improve memory impairment associated with aging.
Investigators in one study determined that phosphatidyl serine shaved 12 years off the normal expected decline in specific aspects of memory performance. Those who took 100 mg of phosphatidyl serine three times a day, with meals for 12 weeks scored 30% higher on memory and learning tests.
Phosphatidyl serine is abundant in your brain, where it helps feed your brain by facilitating two functions: the delivery of nutrients to the brain cells, and the cells’ ability to receive the nutrients. Phosphatidyl serine also activates nerve cells and nerve-transmitter production, helping to regulate and stimulate instantaneous “flashes” of information and your ability to react to that information.
Although your body can make phosphatidyl serine, the process is complicated and requires a lot of energy. Plus, our bodies produce less phosphatidyl serine as we age, which makes supplementing so important, especially for those who may have begun to experience age-related memory problems.
Therapeutic Dosage: With advanced Alzheimer’s patients, it has not proven very effective. It works best when taken at the first signs of the disease. We recommend 100 mg of phosphatidyl serine twice a day. Two other nutrients, choline and inositol, are often added to phosphatidyl serine supplements because they make it work better. And DHA, a component of fish oil, seems to help phosphatidyl serine accumulate in cell membranes, where it does its job.
Fighting Forgetfulness with Food
Even if you have a strong family history of Alzheimer’s disease, you can reduce your chances of developing it with the same healthy lifestyle changes that prevent heart disease and cancer, such as:
Eat three or more servings of vegetables a day, including one dark leafy green vegetable. In a study, older people who did so had brains that functioned like they were five years younger. (Morris, MC et al: Neurology. 2006; 67:1370-6.)
Eat fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines three times a week or more. The fats in fish protect your brain.
Satisfy sweet cravings with dark, minimally-processed chocolate. It improves blood flow to the brain and can help maintain healthy brain function. Look for products that list the amount of flavanols they contain or that have a “Cocoapro” logo.
Go ethnic. Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Mediterranean cuisines all use foods and spices that can help you stay sharp, such as curry, garlic, green tea, and ginger.
Go easy on sugar. Drinking sugar water more than doubled the amount of amyloid plaque in animals. Researchers say the equivalent in humans is roughly five cans of soda a day. (J Biol Chem., Dec 2007; 282: 36275-36282 ; doi:10.1074/jbc.M703561200.)
Challenge Your Brain to Stay Sharp
Maintaining an active mind may slow the build-up of plaques and tangles in the brain, research suggests. Anything that’s challenging but fun will do. Try cooking or language classes, crossword or jigsaw puzzles, socializing with people you find stimulating, scrap booking or genealogical research. For online stimulation, check out a company called Happy Neuron. This website gives temporary free access to video games that strengthen language, memory, judgment and coordination.
Think Aerobic Exercise
As little as three hours of walking a week over a period of six months can increase neurons and neuronal connections in the brains of older adults, research has found. However, only aerobic exercise produces significant increases in brain volume in areas of the brain related to age-related cognitive decline. Brisk walking, hill climbing, swimming or biking — anything that quickens your heart rate and breathing — will work.