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Alzheimer's Prevention

  • Science Searches for How to Prevent Alzheimer's Disease

  • Doing brainteasers to keep your memory sharp? How about some salmon, walnuts or olive oil with your Sudoku?

    According to Mills-Peninsula neurologist Michael Cohen, M.D., studies show the Mediterranean diet helps prevent not only heart disease, but also dementia.

    “It’s certainly not a cure, but it seems to have a very beneficial effect,” he says. “Even in people with early dementia, the diet seems to slow the progression of memory loss.”

    Nutrition is just one area where scientists are searching for clues to help battle a predicted boom in Alzheimer’s disease as the population ages.

    “Age is the number one risk factor for Alzheimer’s and one you cannot avoid,” Robert Telfer, M.D., says. “After the age of 85, about 50 percent of people have the disease.”

    He points to one medical breakthrough that shows promise in preventing or modifying Alzheimer’s.

    “A vaccine that’s still in development seems to clear up plaques in the brain that are thought to be one of the pathologies responsible,” he said.

    “However, the vaccine has not yet been shown to cure or arrest the disease.”

    Just why these plaques made of proteins called beta-amyloids and tangles made of dead and dying nerve cells form in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s is not entirely clear.

    But damage to nerve cells and connections between nerve cells seems to alter the brain chemistry that is involved in memory, Dr. Cohen said.

    “Acetylcholine – a chemical transmitter in the brain – is significantly disturbed and thought to be responsible at least in part for a lot of memory problems. Some medications reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s by increasing levels of acetylcholine.”

    While some studies show that people may be predestined to develop Alzheimer’s at an older age, others reveal hope for people who stay active mentally and physically, the doctors said.

    “People who continue to work and do not retire early tend to do better,” Dr. Telfer said. “Keeping active mentally and socially stimulates the mind, and regular physical exercise helps avoid hypertension, arteriosclerosis and diabetes which are risk factors for the disease.”

    While about 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s today, not everyone with memory difficulties has a neurological disease.

    “The key to recognizing troubling memory loss is being able to identify a progression in symptoms,” he said.

    “Mild memory problems associated with aging tend not to progress, whereas Alzheimer’s will progress rapidly.”

    Part of the diagnosis process is to rule out many conditions that might masquerade as Alzheimer’s, the doctor said, including medication side effects, depression, vitamin B12 deficiency and problems with thyroid, kidney or liver function.

    “In about half of people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, current medications do provide meaningful changes in symptoms,” Dr. Cohen said.

    “Interestingly, the Mediterranean diet proves to be even more effective than medications we have to date.”

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