20 Sep 2018
Despite the billions of dollars the pharmaceutical companies have already spent on research and development of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s, there is still no cure. And with an estimate that as many as 16 million Americans may be living with Alzheimer’s by 2050, the disease is looking like a ticking time bomb.
“Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and the only one that cannot be prevented, cured, or even slowed,” says Dugan Radwin, communications manager for the Hudson Valley Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
That may be exactly why many people are pursuing treatments and preventative measures that don’t necessarily have the blessing of the established medical community. Some are also trying alternative therapies, hoping to even reverse the disease. Dale Bredesen, MD and author of the book The End of Alzheimer’s, posits that cognitive decline can be reversed or prevented when steps are taken to reduce inflammation in the body.
Bredesen, a professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, attributes cognitive decline to “largely a matter of three fundamental threats to our brain: inflammation; a shortage of brain-boosting nutrients, hormones, and other cognition-supporting molecules; and toxic exposure.”
He outlines a path to “optimize your immune system’s ability to destroy pathogens and reduce the chronic inflammation that results from fighting these organisms for years.” Part of his program includes removing inflammatory sources, which involves healing the gut by avoiding sugar, gluten, and pesticides, to detoxify the body.
“Dr. Bredesen offers a multi-therapeutic approach,” says Lisa Feiner, co-founder of Sharp Again Naturally, a Westchester County-based group whose mission is to educate the public and medical community about preventing and reversing multiple causes of memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, and to advocate for new testing and treatment protocols.
With Bredesen’s approach, a lot of testing is required. Specifically, patients are tested for vitamins B-6 and B-12, folate, as well as for homocysteine. Elevated levels of homocysteine are a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Bredesen notes, and are a marker of inflammation. “Although some of us can withstand chronically high homocysteine levels without developing Alzheimer’s disease, they’re a potentially important contributor to cognitive decline and, in particular, shrinkage of the hippocampus.”
Dr. Bredesen also tests for vitamin D3, as low levels are associated with cognitive decline. Abnormal levels of zinc, copper, magnesium, and selenium may also be also associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia, so he tests for these as well.
“We believe that aspects of Dr. Bredesen’s protocol are an effective treatment for many people with memory loss,” says Feiner, asserting that his program has “reversed memory loss in hundreds of patients.”
Regarding his book, Radwin says, “The Alzheimer’s Association believes that Dr. Bredesen has not conducted a broad enough clinical trial to verify the claims in his book. Only a very small research group has been reported in the scientific literature by Dr. Bredesen. So we feel the subtitle of his book, The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline, over-promises results that have not been adequately proven.”
Other physicians offer treatment plans of their own. Henry Sobo, MD, of Stamford, Connecticut, says he embraces Bredesen’s principles when it comes to treating Alzheimer’s. “The dietary and lifestyle changes he outlines are very important,” Dr. Sobo says. “There is documentation that it’s effective. A gluten-free diet, exercise, stress reduction and herbal supplements can help but there is no one magic bullet. And the reason for that is that there is not one [single] thing that is causing Alzheimer’s.”
Dr. Sobo’s program focuses on stress reduction, a diet to reduce brain inflammation, and hormone replacement when needed, among other techniques.
Individuals hoping to stave off Alzheimer’s disease can take some proactive steps right away. Feiner advises people to eat whole, unprocessed foods that don’t contain artificial colors, flavorings, sweeteners, and preservatives, and to remove simple carbs (baked goods, white rice, white pasta) from their diet. She also recommends adding healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, and salmon to your plate.
“Be aware of the chemicals you’re exposed to in your environment,” warns Feiner. “Some things like those plug-in air fresheners are chemicals that your body takes in and your liver has to detoxify.” Toxic exposure like this could be upping your risk of Alzheimer’s, she says.
In addition to dietary and lifestyle changes, challenge your brain by doing new things, advises Feiner, even if it is something as simple as brushing your teeth with the other hand. Spend time with family and friends, because social isolation is the precursor of dementia, adds Feiner. And get at least seven hours of sleep at night. “This allows the brain to get enough oxygen and to detoxify,” she says.
The Alzheimer’s Association is investing $20 million in a two-year clinical trial to learn whether lifestyle interventions that target many risk factors can protect cognitive function among older adults who are at a higher than average risk for cognitive decline. The study, U.S. POINTER (Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk), is the first of its kind to be conducted in a large group of Americans, says Radwin. It will follow 2,500 adults between the ages of 60 and 79, and combine healthy nutrition, physical activity, social and intellectual challenges, and increased medical monitoring of vascular and metabolic conditions.
Although the science behind the effectiveness of alternative therapies for Alzheimer’s is inconclusive, the practice of making lifestyle and dietary changes to prevent the disease is currently being assessed under a number of studies, and may hold important clues in addressing the disease.