Once upon a time people worried about dying from a heart attack. That was replaced by the “Big C” when cancer became the fear du jour. Since then, medicine and nutrition science have done much to help us prevent, fight and live through these afflictions. But we now have a new scare taking center stage that as of yet has no known cure: Alzheimer's Disease. If you ask people how they would least like to leave this world, the A-word is today's front runner. It is the most dreaded of all forms of dementia.
As we cross the age of fifty, we begin to notice some mental slippage. Commonly used words often seem just out of reach. (Now where did that word go? It was just on the tip of my tongue!) Embarrassingly we search in vain for that simple word, and in giving up, we substitute a different one. (Can you please pass me the... thing?) You older baby boomers know just what I'm talking about. Especially you ladies, since the sudden loss of estrogens makes this transition more pronounced. Raise your hand if this has ever made you worry.
To help calm your fears, here are a few examples that can help you distinguish between normal and pathological memory problems:
One clue is severity. Being unable to recall someone's name happens from time to time, and is quite normal. If that someone is your spouse or child, it is pathological. Getting lost in a new place is normal. Getting lost in your own neighborhood is not.
Another type of memory problem involves a breakdown in the thinking process. Occasionally forgetting to turn off the coffee pot is normal, and can happen if we get distracted. Forgetting how to turn it off signals pathology. Forgetting where you placed your reading glasses or car keys on occasion is normal. Finding them in the freezer is not.
Although there is a genetic link in some individuals who develop AD, having an “Alzheimer’s gene” does not necessarily mean that particular gene will be “incorrectly” expressed. Research is now discovering steps you can take to reduce your chances of developing this condition, and to slow the progression when caught early enough.
SAMe (S-adenosyl methionine) is an amino acid derivative, mainly produced by the liver, which is found in very low concentrations in the brains of people who have Alzheimer's Disease (as well as those who suffer from genetically based depression). Low SAMe results in problems with gene expression related to the amyloid-beta accumulations that are a hallmark in the development and progress of AD. Supplementing with 400 mg daily can increase the amount of SAMe in the brain, which should offer some protection.
Ginkgo biloba is perhaps the most widely researched herb in conjunction with AD and other forms of dementia. It appears to work through several mechanisms, including the scavenging of free radicals, increasing blood flow to the brain, and blocking the events induced by amyloid-beta toxicity. Studies have found improved memory after six months of daily supplementation of 120 mg taken once in the morning. Increasing the dose to 240 mg has shown no improvement beyond the 120 mg effects. It has not been shown to improve memory in those who have no deficit. (I knew you wondering.)
Some studies have found a clear relationship between AD and high homocysteine levels in the blood. Supplementing with folate and vitamin B12, both of which tend to be found in low levels among the elderly, is important in reducing levels of homocysteine.
Researchers at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine recently published the results of the Kame Project, which looked at the effects of various nutrients on preventing or delaying AD. This study found that drinking fruit and vegetable juices high in polyphenol content (antioxidant compounds that give fruits and vegetables their rich colors) decreases the risk of developing AD. They found that consuming juices at least three times per week was more effective than taking antioxidant vitamins in reducing risk. I believe the take-home lesson here is that food components work synergistically, so eating whole foods is a healthier way to prevent many diseases than relying on any one part.
Functional foods that have been found in the laboratory to reduce the amyloid-beta pathology in affected brain cells include: the herbs - rosemary, ginseng and ashwagandha, and the substances - curcumin and resveratrol. Curcumin is found in the herb turmeric, and is responsible for giving curry dishes their characteristic yellow color. Resveratrol is found in grape seed extract and red wine made from organically grown grapes. Grapes that have not been grown organically do not produce very much resveratrol.
There are other functional foods that can help slow the types of memory problems that come with normal aging. The omega-3 fats found in fish oil, tuna, wild salmon and flax seeds keep brain cell membranes fluid and flexible, enhancing their function.
Avoid trans fats, as these have been found to distort the shape of cell membranes, making inter-cellular communication slow and faulty. Trans fats are often found in refined, processed, packaged grain products such as crackers and chips. I've also found this culprit hiding in unexpected places like salad dressings, cheese products, etc. Look for the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” in the ingredients list, and put the product back on the shelf if it contains this stuff.
Choline is also very important to brain health. A study of subjects 50-80 years of age found that five weeks of supplementing 500 mg of choline (found in two tablespoons of lecithin granules) resulted in diminished memory lapses such as forgetting names, misplacing items and inability to find words “on the tip of the tongue.” Other rich sources of choline include egg yolks, peanuts and wheat germ.
Use tomato sauce on whole grain pasta dishes. It contains high levels of lycopene, which has been related to sharper mental acuity in old age. Use plenty of garlic in your sauce, as it also has brain protection factors. And for dessert, have a bowl of fresh blueberries. Eating half a cup of blueberries per day has been shown in experiments to reverse normal age-related mental decline.
For general brain health and memory, it is important to keep learning new things throughout your life, and to eat a healthy diet. Regular physical exercise is also important, as this is needed for optimum blood flow, insuring that nutrients are efficiently transported into the brain, and for stimulating the brain to produce more of the chemical messengers needed for thinking, mood, and memory.