Arresting Alzheimer's disease
Terry Willard, ClH, PhD
AD and other forms of dementia are preventable and quite curable in the first stages. Although AD does follow family lines, genetic predisposition to a health problem doesnâ??t mean that the genes will turn on. Studies have shown that lifestyle issues are a stronger influence on who will develop AD than genetic factors.
The other day, Mary M. came into my herbal clinic in tears. Her mother was recently institutionalized with Alzheimer’s disease after suffering with symptoms for the past five years. Mary’s grandmother died a few years earlier after languishing with Alzheimer’s disease for more than a decade.
Was Mary next in line? After all, she was beginning to forget phone numbers and people’s names and she had always been so good at those things. Mary is not a special case. After watching relatives deteriorate with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), many baby boomers find the prospect of developing AD quite scary.
Fortunately I could reassure Mary with good news. AD and other forms of dementia are preventable and quite curable in the first stages. Although AD does follow family lines, genetic predisposition to a health problem doesn’t mean that the genes will turn on. Genetics respond to environmental factors (both positive and negative). Studies have shown that lifestyle issues are a stronger influence on who will develop AD than genetic factors.
Diagnosis at the Fngertips
One of the first things to determine with Mary was whether she had a predisposition to AD. If so, lifestyle factors will be more important for her and others with a family history of AD than they are for the general population. Conveniently, instead of expensive genetic testing, we can look at a patient’s fingerprints to determine predisposition. Yes, that’s right. Abnormal fingerprint patterns have been known since 1985 to be associated with AD.
Compared with the normal population, Alzheimer’s patients show an increased number of ulnar loops on the fingertips (ulnar loops point toward the ulnar bone in the lower forearm and away from the thumb). When we see patients with this fingerprint pattern, it is recommended that an aggressive, preventive approach for AD be instituted immediately.
Even though Mary did not show ulnar loops, I still recommended that she prevent AD by implementing lifestyle changes, taking supplements, and avoiding triggers like aluminum. Considerable attention has focused on the association of aluminum concentration in the brain and AD, with significant evidence showing that it contributes, possibly appreciably, to the disease. Even though eliminating all aluminum in the diet has little effect on advanced AD, it has a strong preventive effect and is helpful at the first stages.
Aluminum appears to come from food, antacids, and deodorants. But the most significant source is probably drinking water, as the aluminum in tap water is in a more bioavailable form and thus potentially toxic. I told Mary to drink reverse-osmosis water instead of tap water. Dietary factors are also clearly important in AD. A diet high in saturated fat, trans fatty acids, and low in dietary antioxidants may lead to the neurological characteristics of AD. Including more fish and monounsaturated fatty acids is associated with reversing cognitive decline. Taking extra vitamin E and C is associated with significantly better cognitive performance.
Considerable evidence indicates that oxidative damage plays a major role in the development and progression of AD. Further evidence shows that antioxidant nutrients offer significant protection against AD.
Once the diagnosis of AD is made, the next step is to rule out reversible causes, the most common of which is drug toxicity. Other important causes are metabolic and nutritional disorders such as hypoglycemia, thyroid disturbances, and vitamin B12, E, folate, or thiamine deficiencies.
The Prevention Plan
A regimen of biological and botanical extracts can work to correct these nutritional deficiencies and help to prevent AD and other forms of dementia.
Ginkgo biloba extract (GBE), standardized to contain 24 percent ginkgo flavonglycosides, has shown great benefit in many cases of AD. In my clinical experience, I have found GBE to be beneficial, but unfortunately not quite as good as the studies suggest. Therefore, I also use the supplements listed below.
The benefits of GBE in early-stage AD are quite evident when given 240 mg per day for 24 weeks. Improvements were seen in patients with AD given a modest dose of GBE (120 mg per day) for one year. GBE not only stabilized AD but also led to significant improvements in mental function in 64 percent of patients. These improvements may enable the patient to maintain a normal life and avoid a nursing home.
There are no side effects with GBE. It must be pointed out, though, that GBE should be taken consistently for at least 12 weeks in order to determine effectiveness. Although some people with AD report benefits within a two- to three-week period, most will need to take GBE for a longer period of time.
Rhodiola, or Rhodiola rosea, is an Arctic plant native to northern Canada. It is a popular adaptogenic tonic that gives strength and stamina to individuals recovering from long-term illness. It increases physical endurance and concentration during times of intense mental activity. Rhodiola improved learning and retention after 24 hours, with significant improvement of long-term memory established in memory tests after a 10-day treatment.
Huperzine A is an alkaloid isolated from a Chinese moss, Huperzia serrata. One double-blind clinical study done at Zhejiang Medical University in China found that huperzine A at a dose of 200 mcg twice daily produced measurable improvements in memory, cognitive function, and behavioural factors in 58 percent of Alzheimer’s patients.
No significant side effects occurred in either group.
Krill, or Euphausia superba, is a small Antarctic shrimp-like zooplankton that produces the highest quality omega-3 oil. Krill contains an antioxidant (astaxanthin) that is 300 times stronger than vitamin A or vitamin E. The oil is three to six times more bioavailable than fish oil.
I have found that by using ginkgo and rhodiola, along with krill and huperzine A, considerably better results can be obtained than by using them separately.
After six months on this program, Mary came in for follow-up and told me that her memory had improved considerably. Her implementation of healthy lifestyle choices, like those of many others before her, gives her confidence in her memory for some time to come.
Dietary and Lifestyle Recommendations
Biological and Botanical Medicine
Is it Genetics?
According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada (Alzheimers.ca), only 5 to 7 percent of Alzheimer’s patients exhibit the rare inherited form of the disease, which comes on earlier in life, before the age of 65. Most AD is determined by lifestyle choices that can be easily modified to prevent the disease.