Saturday, September 6, 2008

Is it possible to prevent Alzheimer's Disease and Reverse Early-Stage Memory Loss?

As soon as people find out what I do they often ask me what they can do to prevent Alzheimer's Disease and other brain-impairing illnesses. There are no definitive answers but in my work as a family consultant I've noticed a few trends.

Many of my clients tell me that their brain-impaired relative was "just fine" until they suffered some devastating emotional setback such as the death of a spouse or other close relative, a change of residence or community, or a forced retirement. Then, what used to look like normal aging blossomed into full-blown dementia.

Why is that? My boss at the Alzheimer's Association always used to say that the disease must have been present before, it just wasn't noticed because there was nothing to bring it to the family's attention. I think it is much more likely that the changes we associate with "normal" aging actually indicate accumulated damage from multiple causes and then emotional devastation delivers the final blow.

What are the multiple causes? We know that the brain depends on the proper utilization of amino acids to create the neurotransmitters we depend on for healthy brain functioning. In Alzheimer's Disease these neurotransmitters become scarce. However, things that disrupt amino acid metabolism are plentiful and well known.

First and foremost is nutrition and, in particular, how much protein a person eats and how well they metabolize it. Amino acids are found in protein sources like meat, chicken or fish and in adequate vegetarian combinations of beans and whole grains. In order to properly utilize these amino acids, however, a person needs to have adequate amounts of folic acid, B6, B12 and Vitamin C. The body breaks down the amino acids to create other compounds the body needs for various functions. If that does not happen properly in the case of the amino acid methionine, compounds that would otherwise be used to lower cholesterol are not made while a metabolite called homocysteine is created which is toxic in large amounts. High levels of homocysteine injure the arteries and encourages the formation of plaque. There also seems to be some correlation between high homocysteine levels and early stage Alzheimer's Disease.

Things that interfere with amino acid metabolism include not eating enough vegetables (the dark leafy kinds have folic acid in them), having an allergy or sensitivity to wheat or other foods, excessive exposure to pesticides and other environmental toxins, and long term exposure to mental stress and depression.

Things that help the body cope and recover from these things include:

* Adequate but not excessive protein consumption (remember, you need B vitamins and folic acid to metabolize the protein -- it takes a lot of spinach to make up for that Big Mac!)

* High dosages of folate, Vitamins B6 and B12

* Lots of lightly cooked fruits and vegetables

* If you have a wheat sensitivity (which is very common) give up bread, pasta, cookies and other wheat-containing products (I guarantee you'll lose weight!)

* Adequate fresh clean water

* Exercise and mental stimulation (don't watch TV all day!)

* Love and active engagement in life

I believe these last two items are most important. Even people who have already been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease ward off the worst effects of the disease and maintain their ability to function longer if they are positively engaged in life than people who are clearly depressed and withdrawn. And sometimes -- I've seen it only a few times in five years of doing this work -- the symptoms of memory loss and confusion can go away almost completely when a person renews their ability to find joy and excitement in being alive and gets the care and attention it takes to make that happen.

The previous blog post is an excerpt from my book The Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving available now directly from me for $14.95 plus shipping.

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