What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that involves dementia, a progressive decline in cognitive function. It is most characterized by memory loss, impaired thinking and personality change. Dementia is not unique to Alzheimer’s, but Alzheimer’s does account for 50 to 60 percent of all dementia cases. With Alzheimer’s, there is degeneration of healthy brain tissue which occurs over time, and the resulting decline in mental abilities becomes severe enough to hinder daily functions. The specific features found in the brain of those with Alzheimer’s include, primarily, plaque formation, amyloid deposition and neurofibrillary (tau) tangles. Simply put, the presence of excess amounts of these deposits results in massive loss of brain cells, especially in areas that control mental function. Although Alzheimer’s symptoms develop at a late age in life, it is not clear when the disease process actually begins.
What Causes Alzheimers Disease?
The cause of Alzheimer’s has not been clearly distinguished. It is thought to be the result of both genetics and environmental influence, similar to most other health conditions. There are established risk factors, however, that have been shown to play a role in the disease. (read more)
Genetics do play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s, but genes are just one factor among many. It’s important to note that a person may carry this gene and not develop the disease. Conversely, a person may develop Alzheimer’s and not carry this gene.
The study of the development of Alzheimer’s has largely looked at factors related to the brain abnormalities that are found in those with the disease. The limitation of studying Alzheimer’s in this way is that these abnormalities are found at a later age. Researchers are looking at the effects of environmental toxins (like heavy metals and pollutants), dietary habits (like cholesterol) and other physiologic features that may, over a long period of time, alter the body in such a way as to eventually produce these brain abnormalities that cause the symptoms of dementia. As a matter of fact, a 23-year study using monkeys found that those monkeys who received low levels of lead in infant formula, which reflected the amount of lead that an average human infant would be exposed to, developed Alzheimer’s-like brain pathologies when they aged.
Smoking is another risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
The link between aluminum exposure and Alzheimer’s was first examined in the 1960s. Since then, many links have been made, though it still has not been determined whether the aluminum exposure causes Alzheimer’s.
Copper, zinc and iron levels in the brain have also been connected to either the development or progression of the disease. Other toxins implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s disease include glues, pesticides, fertilizers and cigarette smoke.
Other risk factors that have been established for Alzheimer’s include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. It has not been entirely established whether these conditions lead to Alzheimer’s, or vice versa, but a link has been firmly established. With the increasing prevalence of these conditions, and the fact that they are largely preventable through diet and lifestyle modifications, it is becoming evident that the foods people consume and toxins that they are exposed to throughout life contribute to a disease process that is far-reaching.
Insulin resistance has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease is also known as type 3 diabetes. Insulin resistance is the main feature of diabetes, as well as prediabetes and the metabolic syndrome, and it has been found to be associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. It is thought that chronic increased levels of insulin in the blood (which is what leads to insulin resistance) results in a decrease in insulin crossing the blood brain barrier where it affects glucose metabolism—glucose being the main energy source of brain cells. This disruption of glucose balance in the brain may affect many areas of brain function, as well as overall cognitive function.
A fast-food diet has also been implicated as a risk factor for the development of the brain pathologies associated with Alzheimer’s, based on results from animal studies. Further research in humans will clarify the role that the diet plays in the development of this debilitating disease. It is worth noting here that Alzheimer’s disease has been associated with metabolic syndrome, a precursor to cardiovascular disease that is often the result of the Standard American Diet (SAD).
Abdominal fat, which is also a risk factor for the development of both diabetes and cardiovascular disease, has been linked to cognitive decline and dementia. This follows the previous discussion concerning diet, and illustrates the positive role that proper diet and lifestyle may play in preventing cognitive decline.
Another dietary factor that may play a role in cognitive impairment is celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Certain proteins from wheat are not fully digested by some people, and they are able to enter into the bloodstream and travel to the brain. These proteins, called gluteomorphins, due to their opiate-like activity, may be able to damage the brain.
The balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids greatly favors the inflammatory omega-6s in the Standard American Diet (SAD). This lack of anti-inflammatory omega-3s can have an effect on brain function. Two important omega-3s—EPA and DHA—are found in high concentrations in fatty fish. DHA is especially helpful for cognition, as it is the most abundant fat in the brain. A lack of DHA has been found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, higher blood levels of DHA were found in association with a lower risk of developing dementia. Correcting this imbalance by obtaining sufficient omega-3s is essential.
Beta-amyloid is also involved in an inflammatory process in the brain, which may lead to the destruction of surrounding neurons. It is interesting to note that glial cells, which are the immune cells of the brain, are also located in the gut. In fact, this enteric glia has an important role in preserving the integrity of the mucosal barrier of the gut. It has been suggested that these gut-brain-immune cells provide a connection from the gut to the brain, and may be involved in brain inflammation and/or neurodegeneration. This possible pathway from the gut to the brain suggests that gut inflammation may be transported to the brain. The inflammation forms atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the arteries), and may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. Inflamed capillaries in the brain may be unable to remove amyloid beta at a fast enough rate resulting in a buildup in the brain, as is seen in Alzheimer’s.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Alzheimer’s symptoms occur in progression. Alzheimer’s disease usually begins gradually with mild forgetfulness. Forgetfulness is also a common event in the aging process, and most people who have trouble remembering recent occurrences do not have Alzheimer’s. It is when the forgetfulness begins to interfere with everyday life that there is a cause for concern. Forgetting a person’s name is not such a cause for concern as forgetting who a person is. (read more)
Mild Alzheimer’s, which is usually present when the disease is diagnosed, includes such actions as repeating stories over and over, getting lost, or forgetting how to do regular tasks, such as paying bills. Mood and personality changes may also occur in this stage.
In moderate Alzheimer’s, more damage occurs in the brain in the areas that control language, reasoning, sensory processing, and conscious thought. The person may not be able to learn new things or even carry out multi-stepped tasks such as getting dressed. Hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia can also be a part of this stage.
In the severe stage of Alzheimer’s, the plaques and tangles in the brain have spread throughout, leaving a much-reduced amount of brain tissue. People in this stage cannot communicate and are dependent on others for their care.
Brenda’s Bottom Line Toward Dealing With Alzheimers Disease
One major factor leading to Alzheimer’s disease is heavy metal toxicity. It was originally thought that toxins could not cross the blood-brain barrier, but they do. In fact, some toxins can cross over to the brain through processes known as ionic and molecular mimicry. This occurs when a toxin becomes disguised so that it looks like a molecule or ion that is normally present in the body. In this way, toxins can gain access to most all cells including the brain.
When a gut imbalance is present, creating leaky gut, it is even easier for toxins to enter the bloodstream. In addition, with age comes the breakdown of bone. Heavy metals can be stored long-term in bone and released when the bone breaks down with age. If symptoms of Alzheimer’s occur at the same time as increased bone loss (as with osteoporosis), heavy metals may be to blame. A hair analysis test can be performed to detect heavy metals in the body.
Another factor that may be underlying Alzheimer’s disease is Lyme disease, which is caused by the Borrelia bacteria and transmitted through tick bites. Lyme disease may be mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease because the bacteria enter the central nervous system creating similar neurological symptoms. Lyme disease is a treatable condition but can be difficult to treat if it is not detected early.
With the aging of the baby boomer generation (my own generation), there is a need to approach this condition from a preventive mindset. Get the gut in balance, reduce toxin exposure and support liver function.
The following recommendations will be helpful for you.