The holidays are a time to spend with family, make new memories or cherish old memories of those who are no longer with us. Lately, the memory of my grandfather has been on my mind. Ten years ago he died from Alzheimer's disease-related complications. It was a slow, progressive illness that his took is personality, memory and mobility.
November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are an estimated 5 million people living in the United States with Alzheimer’s. The number of cases is expected to reach 16 million by 2050. It is currently the sixth leading cause of death. These statistics are alarming and why I chose to focus on Alzheimer’s in this month’s article.
Memory impairment — often referred to as mild cognitive decline — is a potential precursor to the development of Alzheimer's. Cognitive decline presents as mild but measurable changes in thinking abilities that are noticeable to the person who is affected and by their family and friends.
Alzheimer’s is a more severe set of these symptoms leading to the disruption of everyday life, mental and physical decline. Some of the signs and symptoms of cognitive decline and increased for Alzheimer’s include:
- Memory loss, especially of recent events, names, places and other new information.
- Confusion about time and place.
- Changes in mood and personality.
- Problems planning or completing tasks.
- Problems with words in speaking or writing.
- Misplacing things or inability to retrace steps.
There is no single known cause for cognitive decline transitioning into Alzheimer’s. It’s a multifactorial disease that is influenced by other disease processes in the body, diet and lifestyle choices, nutritional deficiencies, environmental exposures and genetic predispositions.
When the brain is affected by Alzheimer’s, changes occur that lead to decreased production of neurotransmitters: messengers in the brain that control cognition, muscle movement, sleep cycle and mood. There is also decreased circulation in the brain that leads to decreased delivery of oxygen, decreased waste clearing, increased inflammation and damage to cells in the brain.
Brain health is influenced by the health of the whole body. Disease processes in the body that promote inflammation or reduce blood flow to the brain promote cognitive decline and increase risks for Alzheimer’s. Some of the diseases known to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s include: diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, traumatic brain injury and Down’s Syndrome.
Lifestyle habits like smoking tobacco and consuming alcohol increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Those who smoke a pack a day or more are at higher risk, and the risk increases with prolonged use. Smoking decreases oxygen delivery to the brain and promotes inflammation. Tobacco smoke also contains heavy metals and chemicals that have the ability to directly damage brain cells and deplete nutrients that protect the brain. Alcohol is directly toxic to brain cells and depletes nutrients essential for brain health. It also impairs the repair of brain cells.
Heavy metals are one type of environmental exposure that have a profound effect on brain health. Arsenic, lead and mercury are associated with premature brain aging, memory deficits, learning disorders, inflammation and direct brain cell damage. These effects are seen from acute large exposures as well as chronic low level exposures to these heavy metals.
There are certain genes associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. While these genes increase risk, their presence is not a guarantee of disease. Activation and promotion of these genes is determined by diet and lifestyle factors, nutritional status, environmental exposures and unmanaged disease states.
It’s important to remember that not all memory issues are caused by Alzheimer’s. Hormone imbalances (such as those caused by menopause or slowed thyroid function), nutrient deficiencies, stress, depression, anxiety, impaired sleep quality and certain medications like antihistamines and antacids are known to negatively impact memory.
Typically, Alzheimer’s manifests after age 60 and the risk increases with age. It is important to stress that the changes in the brain that lead to the development of Alzheimer’s start 15-20 years prior to diagnosis. This means there is a lot that can be done to help lower Alzheimer’s risk. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s and maintaining your brain health.
Dr. Stacie Wells, ND, FAAEM is a Naturopathic Doctor & Fellow of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. She practices at the Northwest Center for Optimal Health in Marysville, WA. Contact her at 360-651-9355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.