Aug 13, 2007

Fighting Alzheimer's Disease

By Dr. Kay and Dr. Max weigh in on ways to help those with Alzheimer's and those pedisposed to Alzheimer's turn back the clock.

By Dr. Kay and Dr. Max

Turning back the Alzheimer's clock

Q: My father and my aunt both died of Alzheimer's disease, and I am worried about my own risk. What can I do to prevent it?

A: Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and currently affects almost 5 million Americans. Alzheimer's disease is characterized by the deposition of protein plaques and tangled fibers in the brain. We don't yet know what causes Alzheimer's disease, though it is felt to have a genetic basis. However, environmental factors (translation: your lifestyle) play an important role.

Prescription medications like Namenda and Aricept may slow the progression of dementia once it is diagnosed, although the benefits are not dramatic by any means. Scientists are now trying to find medications that can prevent Alzheimer's disease, and there is a lot of research being done on alternative therapies. A few look promising: Animal studies suggest that curcumin, the pigment that gives the spice turmeric its yellow color, may slow the formation of Alzheimer's disease plaques in the brain; in mice brains, curcumin may even clear out pre-existing plaques. Curcumin works as an anti-oxidant and anti- inflammatory agent (it may also reduce the growth of cancer cells and reduce viral infections).

Some data also are starting to show that curcumin may play a role in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease. In India, turmeric is consumed by most people on a regular basis; it is also prescribed medicinally by Indian doctors. Perhaps this might explain why India has one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer's disease in the world.

Should you take up the consumption of curcumin, e.g., in supplement pills, especially if you might be at risk for Alzheimer's disease? Several well-known health experts recommend it -- 500 mg to 1,000 mg per day. Finding ways to cook with turmeric may also be a good way to consume curcumin -- it can be added to many soups and vegetable dishes.

Another promising prevention therapy for Alzheimer's disease is acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC), an amino acid that helps to increase the amount of acetylcholine in your brain (The brains of Alzheimer's disease patients are deficient in this.) The dose used in studies has been 1,500 to 4,000 mg per day in divided doses. It seems to be a very safe supplement, but can cause some stomach upset. ALC also shows promise for patients with neuropathy, including diabetic neuropathy. If you take blood thinners, especially coumadin, talk to your doctor before taking ALC -- it can increase the effect of coumadin in your blood.

Other natural therapies that are being studied for the prevention or treatment of Alzheimer's disease include:

• B vitamins, vitamins C and E, zinc, selenium, alpha-lipoic acid, and coenzyme-Q.

• Fish oil -- contains omega-3s which are good for your brain cells.

• Phosphatidylserine -- a phospholipid, found in the brain.

• Ginkgo -- an herb that may improve blood flow in the brain.

• Arginine (an amino acid that can improve blood flow -- and can also drop your blood pressure -- talk to your doctor).

One more way you can head off Alzheimer's disease is to keep your brain and body active. A 2003 New England Journal of Medicine study of 469 seniors found that participation in activities such as reading, playing board games and playing musical instruments reduced the risk of dementia.

A 2006 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that people who had a high level of physical function were three times less likely to get dementia compared to those who fit the couch potato model.

Bottom line? Exercise regularly, keep your brain active, and eat a healthy diet with lots of natural anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories (translation: eat your fruits and vegetables).

For good measure, take a daily multivitamin that has B complex, vitamins C and E, zinc, and selenium. Consider taking fish oil (1 to 2 grams per day) if you don't eat fish regularly and stay tuned for other supplement recommendations. If you are at risk for Alzheimer's disease, consider adding turmeric and acetyl-L-carnitine to your health regimen, but as always, talk to your doctor.

About the writer:
Drs. Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden are medical directors of Sutter's Downtown Integrative Medicine program.

Insight and Advice

Bob DeMarco is the Founder of the Alzheimer's Reading Room and an Alzheimer's caregiver. Bob has written more than 1,880 articles with more than 95,100 links on the Internet. Bob resides in Delray Beach, FL.

Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room