Named after Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915), a German neurologist, Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) robs its patients of their dignity, intellect, and ability to carry out daily routine tasks.
AD is one form of dementia. The others are: 1) Vascular dementia (multi-infarct or post-stroke dementia), 2) Mixed dementia, 3) Dementia with Lewy bodies, 4) Parkinson’s disease, 5) Frontotemporal dementia, 6) Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, and 7) Normal pressure hydrocephalus.
While hundreds—perhaps thousands—of AD researchers around the world continue to spend millions of dollars looking for answers in the brains of rats, birds, fish, hedgehogs, etc., perhaps some of the clues are closer to home: diet, exercise, lifestyle, nutritional supplements, and heredity.
An estimated 5.2 Americans currently have been diagnosed with AD, including almost 200,000 people younger than 65, who have younger-onset Alzheimer’s, according the Alzheimer’s Association, Chicago, Illinois. By 2050, those 65 and older with AD will number 16 million. AD kills more Americans than prostate cancer and breast cancer combined, in which over 500,000 seniors die of the disease each year.
Almost two-thirds of American seniors with AD are women, the Association said. Of those 65 and over, 3.2 million are women and 1.8 million are men.
At an Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Paris, France, in 2011, the delegates said that over half of the Alzheimer’s cases in the world could be prevented if we eliminate those risk factors that we have control over, such as depression, obesity, and smoking, either with lifestyle changes or treatment of underlying conditions.
They added that just a 25% reduction in 7 common risk factors could prevent up to 3 million AD cases around the world, and up to 500,000 in the U.S. alone. Some of the risk factors have a greater impact on risk than others, reported Deborah Barnes, M.D., University of California at San Francisco.
Worldwide, she said, 19% of AD cases are linked to low education, 14% to smoking, 13% to physical inactivity, 10% to depression, 5% to high blood pressure, 2.4% to diabetes, and 2% to obesity. In the U.S., she continued, 21% of the cases can be traced to physical inactivity, 15% to depression, 11% to smoking, 8% to high blood pressure, 7% to obesity, 7% to low education, and 3% to diabetes.
Writing in neurology recently, David J. Llewellyn, Ph.D., University of Exeter Medical School, United Kingdom, said that their studies confirm that a vitamin D deficiency is associated with a substantially increased risk of all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, those with a moderate deficiency of the vitamin have a 53% higher risk of some form of dementia, and, for those with a severe deficiency of vitamin D have a 125% increased risk of the disease.
“We thought that vitamin D was important for bones—it is intertwined with calcium—but it may be playing an important role throughout the body,” Llewellyn said. “As an example, the vitamin may act as a buffer regulating calcium levels on brain cells.”
In a later interview, he added that it seems that vitamin D helps to break down and remove beta-amyloid plaques, which are protein abnormalities that distinguish Alzheimer’s.
A team of researchers has pinpointed how vitamin D3 and omega-3 fatty acids may enhance the immune system’s ability to clear the brain of amyloid plaques, they reported in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
When the sun’s rays interact with cholesterol on the skin, this produces vitamin D2, which is converted into D3 in the body. Both are available over-the-counter in supplement form.
“Our study sheds further light on a possible role of nutritional substances, such as vitamin D3 and omega-3 fatty acids in boosting immunity to fight AD,” said Milan Fiala, M.D., David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA in California.
He added that, “We may find that we need to carefully balance the supplementation with vitamin D3 and omega-3s, depending on each patient, in order to help promote efficient clearing of amyloid-beta.”
Alzheimer’s is a debilitating disease and while scientists do not have a complete understanding of its causes it is time to take to take control of lifestyle factors that may play a role. Improve your diet, exercise more, increase vitamin D intake, and get a good quality sleep each night. These small changes will not only reduce your risk, but will also improve your life now!
For more information on AD and diet, exercise, nutritional supplements, smoking, etc., read my book, Minimizing the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, Algora Books, New York, 2012.