Currently, about 5.3 million people in the US have Alzheimer's Disease, incurring about $172 billion annually in costs. Worldwide, those costs soar to over $315 billion annually when you include dementia, and costs are expected to soar to $20 trillion over the next 40 years in the U.S. alone. The disease isn't going away anytime soon, and in fact, during the years 2000 and 2006, the mortality rate for Alzheimer's rose by 46.1 percent. Just for perspective, during that same time period, the incidence of fatal heart disease went down by 11 percent and incidence of fatal stroke declined by 18 percent. Considering the devastating effects of the disease on both victims and their families, as well as the staggering expenses and the continuing lack of any effective interventions, a preventative that reduces the risk of getting the disease by 40 percent seems a near miracle.
Such a preventative does indeed exist, according to results of a new study. The preventative isn't a vaccine or pill, in spite of the fortunes poured into research trying to find such a palliative. Rather, the preventative is diet -- specifically, the Mediterranean diet. According to the authors of the study, "Epidemiological evidence linking diet, one of the most important modifiable environmental factors, and risk of Alzheimer's disease is rapidly increasing."
The research team from Columbia University, led by Dr. Yian Gu, tracked the diets of 2,148 healthy people over age 65 for an average of four years. Subjects underwent testing for Alzheimer's disease every 18 months. At the end of the study period, more than 10 percent (253 subjects) had developed Alzheimer's. The researchers found that those who ate a more Mediterranean-like diet -- focusing on olive oil-based salad dressing, nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, broccoli, fruits, dark and green leafy vegetables, and less red meat, organ meat and high-fat dairy products -- were 40 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's than those following a more "normal" diet.
Study leader Dr. Gu attributed the results to a number of factors. Because the diet is so heart healthy, it may protect the brain from strokes that make it more vulnerable to Alzheimer's. Also, it may be that the brain is protected by the nutrients that the diet is so rich in -- such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and folate. Also, the combination of foods may have an important impact. According to Dr. Gu, "… vitamin B12 and folate are homocysteine-related vitamins that may have an impact on Alzheimer's disease via their ability of reducing circulating homocysteine levels, vitamin E might prevent Alzheimer's disease via its strong antioxidant effect, and fatty acids may be related to dementia and cognitive function through atherosclerosis, thrombosis, or inflammation via an effect on brain development and membrane functioning or via accumulation of beta-amyloid."
In other words, although the particular benefit associated with the Mediterranean diet vis-à-vis Alzheimer's may be unknown, it is safe to say that somewhere within its multifaceted benefits and protective impact something about the Mediterranean diet has profound impact on your likelihood of developing Alzheimer's.
The message is clear, but it's no secret that getting people to follow any diet is a Herculean task. If a vaccine had been developed that offered a 40 percent chance of Alzheimer's protection, no doubt the masses would line up for it, but a nutritious diet that offers the same benefit (plus other benefits) isn't likely to be followed by most unless there's a major shift in consciousness. A vaccine is one time and forget it. People can handle that. But asking most people to give up their fast foods, barbequed meat, and snack foods is just plain asking too much! And so, the search continues for other, easier, one-shot Alzheimer's preventatives. And in fact, a few hopeful possibilities have popped up recently. One comes from the development of a new nutritional drink called Souvenaid that apparently repairs brain synapses. Souvenaid is a "medical food" marketed for Alzheimer's disease by Danone (called Dannon in the US), consisting of a cocktail of nutrients including uridine monophosphate, choline, the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, phospholipids, B vitamins, and antioxidants.
Research (paid for by Danone) has indicated that brains afflicted with Alzheimer's show low numbers of synapses (junctions between two neurons or between a neuron and a muscle) in connection with symptoms such as memory impairment and language deterioration. According to Dr. Richard Wurtman, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of the Souvenaid study, the three components of the drink -- uridine, choline, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA -- work together to restore synapses. Although thee nutrients are found separately in the body and in certain foods, individual supplements won't do the trick. It is only when taken together in the right proportions that the cocktail increases the production of fatty constituents and proteins needed for synapses. Wurtman's study showed that the drink delayed the symptoms of Alzheimer's, especially in those with mild, but real, cases. Keeping in mind that the study was paid for by Danone in support of their product, the results are still interesting.
On another front, a research team in Portugal just found that caffeine may slow the progression of Alzheimer's, dementia, and associate conditions. According to study leaders Alexandre de Mendonca of the University of Lisbon, and Rodrigo Cunha, of the University of Coimbra, "A few epidemiological studies showed that the consumption of moderate amounts of caffeine was inversely associated with the cognitive decline associated with aging as well as the incidence of Alzheimer's disease. This was paralleled by animal studies showing that chronic caffeine administration prevented memory deterioration and neurodegeneration in animal models of aging and of Alzheimer's disease." This, of course, is positive for those whose Alzheimer's hasn't progressed so far that they can't remember to drink their coffee every day.
And finally, studies have shown that L-carnosine based formulas may also be helpful in preventing or slowing down the progression of Alzheimer's.
What does it all add up to? For Alzheimer's prevention, a Mediterranean diet modified with a daily spot o' tea and an L-carnosine formula may just do the trick. You'll not only reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's -- you'll also increase your lifespan and reduce your risk for heart disease.