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Report from the Cutting-Edge of Medicine

Alzheimer's disease slowly robs a person of their mind, memory, and personality. As the dreaded illness inches on the patient no longer recognizes his or her family, loved ones, or himself. According to recent reports, it is our most feared disease, even more so than cancer.

When I first began my research and writing on this subject over 15 years ago and created The Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation, there were approximately four million Americans with Alzheimer's. Today there are over five million people in the USA diagnosed with the disease and perhaps as many as 500,000 undiagnosed people living in society with Alzheimer's.

Beyond that, the numbers continue to rise, with estimates reaching as high as 16 million Americans with the disease in our lifetime. Worldwide these numbers are predicted to skyrocket to around 80 million people by 2050.

Moreover, while Alzheimer's is often considered a disease of aging with ten percent of the population over age 65 having the disease and 50 percent over 85 having it as well, there is a very disturbing trend: According to Ronald Peterson of The Mayo Clinic, Alzheimer's disease is now appearing in younger people as well, sometimes even as early as in their twenties.

How is it that someone so young can get Alzheimer's disease and beyond that, why is it that some people get it and some escape? While there is no clear answer to that question, there are a number of scientifically proven risk factors for developing Alzheimer's disease:

  • Age. As mentioned the older you get, the risk increases.
  • Genetics. The Apo E-4 gene has been shown to be associated with a 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's. What this should tell you is that having this gene does not necessarily mean you're going to get it. Clearly, recent research reveals, genes aren't everything. And, as we'll see soon, there are a number of reasonable ways to blunt the effects of genes and other risk factors.
  • A family history of Alzheimer's. Having a relative such as a grandparent, parent, aunt, uncle or sibling with the disease dramatically increases your risk.
  • Lifestyle. As you will soon see, there are a number of particular environmental factors that modify your risk of developing memory loss across your life span. These include modifications in your daily activities that you can make right now.
  • Other risk factors include head trauma, depression, heart disease, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, elevation of the amino acid homocystine in your blood, and low levels of vitamin B12 and folic acid in your blood.

But there is good news to report. Due to recent discoveries, mainstream medical scientists now agree with my own previous work that Alzheimer's disease may be able to be prevented or its onset delayed. And, very importantly, if we can delay the onset of Alzheimer's by five years then the number of cases will be halved. Additionally, if we can delay its onset by 10 years, which I believe is very possible, a person may outlive the development of the disease and thus Alzheimer's disease may be eliminated.

The reason that it is possible to prevent Alzheimer's disease is primarily because of what I call the first law of brain longevity. That law is; your brain is flesh and blood just like the rest of the body.

Because your brain is flesh and blood, there are things you can do to keep it healthy and working well regardless of your age or stage of life. Now, most excitedly, we know that you can even grow new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis, build new connections between brain cells, a process called neuroplasticity, and enhance your cognitive reserve or the strength of your brain to resist damage. Where do all these new exciting facts lead? You can enjoy a lifetime of peak mental performance.

So how can you build a better brain, empower cognitive reserve, and even prevent Alzheimer's disease?

According to the latest research presented at The Second International Prevention of Dementia Conference recently hosted by the Chicago based Alzheimer's Association in Washington D.C., the way to develop a better, stronger brain is to make lifestyle choices similar to what I described in my breakthrough book, Brain Longevity (Warner Books'97).

Brain Longevity was the first book ever published for the general public that mentioned the possibility of preventing and reversing memory loss. Here are the original four pillars of Brain Longevity:

  • Diet and Memory Specific Nutrient Supplementation
  • Stress Management 
  • Physical, Mental and Mind/Body Exercise
  • Pharmaceutical Mediation and Hormone Replacement Therapy

As discussed at the conference, it's exceedingly clear that what you put in your mouth over time may influence the development of many diseases including heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. According to nutritional research, the enemies of brain longevity are a diet high in saturated and trans-fats as well as eating foods that are too high in sugar.

In countries where the intake of fat is high, the incidence of Alzheimer’s is elevated as well. Moreover, new research by medical scientists has clearly indicated that Alzheimer’s may be a form of insulin resistance. In other words, Alzheimer’s may be a type of diabetes in the brain.

For that reason the up to the minute recommendations are to eat a diet limited to 20 percent fat rich in omega-3 types from sources such as salmon and tuna. Protein should be from lean sources and you need to make sure you get your six to nine servings of fresh, preferably organic, fruit and vegetables every day.

As that is still quite difficult for most Americans, a multiple vitamin and mineral tablet is recommended. Although there has been some controversy recently regarding supplementation with antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin C and vitamin E, the consensus is that they are beneficial to long-term brain health.

Other supplement research receiving positive reviews at the conference include ginkgo, phosphatdylserine, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, turmeric, and green tea. Resveratrol, pomegranate, and blueberries were also mentioned.

The newest and most exciting research work from the bastions of academic medicine however, was concerning the three concepts I mentioned above: neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and cognitive reserve.

The keys to generating new brain cells (neurogenesis) and forging new connections (neuroplasticity) in animals as well as humans appears to be in creating what’s known as an enriched environment. Research in mice by Dr. Carl Cotman’s laboratory at The University of California in Irvine, reveals when the little animals are given nice cages with treadmills and mice toys and other mice for company as opposed to simply having the mouse put in a cage with a bowl of water and food, they do better on memory tests, and have less Alzheimer’s pathology in their brains when examined at autopsy.

Dr. Rusty Cage in San Diego has also shown that exercising mice actually grow new brain cells.

Numerous studies in humans support the benefits of exercise for your heart and cardiovascular system. It helps prevent osteoporosis and boosts your immune system. Studies have also shown that people who exercise lower their risk of memory loss.

Moreover, new work by investigator Scott Small, M.D. at Columbia University has conclusively shown that physical exercise creates new brain cells in humans. In his work Scott has been able to explain specifically what happens in the brain following exercise. Exercise, they found, targets a part of the brain in the hippocampus or memory center of the brain called the dentate gyrus, which is the area associated with memory loss.

Dr. Small is now looking to describe the exact type of exercise that may be most effective at growing new brain cells and I believe I may have the answer.

Why? Because in a related study The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, of which I’m President/ Medical Director, presented two abstracts at the conference on our preliminary results of studying a novel mind/body meditation exercise called Kirtan Kriya, which we performed in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

In this study it was revealed in only 12 minutes a day subjects with memory loss were able to improve after eight weeks of regular practice. We also performed SPECT scans at the beginning of the research and again after the eight-week period, which showed a myriad of positive changes. The scans revealed, for example, that the posterior cingulate gyrus, the first area of the brain to diminish in activity in Alzheimer’s is activated by this Kirtan Kriya.

All of this new and exciting research tells us it is now possible to enhance your cognitive reserve and perhaps prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Described by psychologist, Yacov Stern, Ph.D., of Columbia University, cognitive reserve simply means that by continually working on your brain, and making it strong through the various lifestyle measures I’ve discussed in this article, you may be able to avoid the terrible tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease.

And that’s worthwhile.

Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD

Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D. was born in Ohio and was raised in Florida. Since 1993, he has been the President and Medical Director of the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation in Tucson, Arizona, the original voice in the integrative or holistic medical approach to the prevention and treatment of memory loss. The ARPF is dedicated to fighting Alzheimer's disease and finding a cure through research and prevention.