By Rosie Shelley
BA, SAC.Dip, ITEC.Dip
‘Recent research suggests that there is a critical link between nutritional deficiencies and the incidence of degenerative neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.’ — Dr Aron Barbey
Doctor Barbey was the leader of a study, out this June, adding to existing evidence that omega-3 oils found in oily fish can benefit those most at risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. And in August, an overview of more than 300 studies found that the number one protective factor was a healthy diet. Each year, September 21st marks World Alzheimer’s Day. Over 48,000 Irish people currently have a diagnosis of dementia, with about 60% of them having Alzheimer’s disease (AD) – a disease that can be just as distressing for family members as it is for the sufferer.
AD is characterised by the formation of amyloid ‘tangles’ and ‘plaques’ in the shrinking brain. These clumps destroy brain cells and interfere with its chemical messaging functions. A key feature is a reduction in the level of the neurotransmitter (messenger) acetylcholine, which deals especially with memory.
Age is of course the primary risk factor, but others are equally important – lifestyle, nutritional deficiencies, obesity and diabetes, cardiovascular issues, oxidative damage, smoking, chronic exposure to heavy metals, and genetics, although only 2% of cases are inherited.
Perhaps the main consideration is that cognitive health is directly linked to heart health, and that both are strongly determined by blood levels of a toxic compound called homocysteine. Reducing those levels, by taking high strength B vitamins, would therefore be the first plan of action. Research has shown between 30% and 90% less brain shrinkage in people with early signs of AD when given B6, B12 and folic acid. What B vitamins do is boost the conversion of homocysteine into that vital acetylcholine (the drugs given to people with AD stabilise symptoms by boosting levels of acetylcholine), and endless studies have demonstrated the link between vitamin B status and brain function.
Inflammation (partly as a result of poor gut bacterial balance) is a central feature, and oxidative damage to the cells, including those of the brain, is caused by smoking, sunlight, fumes, deep fried foods and so on, even the normal breakdown of foods, so taking a good probiotic and eating plenty of antioxidants in fresh, deeply or brightly coloured plant foods is the second prong of attack, along with achieving a healthy weight and managing diabetic or heart conditions, and exercising regularly (in the sunshine for important vitamin D). Inactivity raises the risk of AD by 70%, while sex has been shown to light up the relevant areas of the brain. Eat plenty of anti-inflammatory omega 3 and vitamin D-rich oily fish, and the healthy oils in olive oil, nuts and seeds, but limit meat and saturated fats and avoid trans/hydrogenated fats altogether, as they markedly accelerate cognitive decline. Fried foods, especially cured pork products, contribute to the formation of those tangles and plaques. An Indo/ Mediterranean diet, based on vegetables, oily fish, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, olive oil and a little red wine, is widely accepted by as the very best model for the prevention and control of AD. Experts also agree on the importance of keeping the mind active as well as the body.
Finally, a connection has long been made between AD and exposure to aluminium (in tin foil, anti-perspirants, baking soda, antacids, cookware, shampoo and food additives such as E541). It would be wise to avoid these things, and to consume foods and drinks containing silicon, which partially prevents the absorption of aluminium. More recent research has pointed to high levels of copper in the blood of AD sufferers, and we know that copper makes it harder for the brain to get rid of amyloid proteins. My feeling, supported by several exciting new studies, is that excess copper is key here. It is, however, in a great variety of foods and necessary for health, so the answer is to take a supplement of zinc, which is antagonistic: the higher your zinc levels, the lower those of copper.
• For more information, contact the Alzheimer Society of Ireland on 1800 341341, or go to www.alzheimer.ie