“We turn now to a potentially major medical breakthrough, the FDA approving the first new treatment for Alzheimer’s in almost 20 years,” ABC News. This drug approval which is supposed to slow cognitive decline in initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease has grabbed headlines from every major news outlet over the past week. At $56,000 per year, you get monthly injections that have only been shown to have statistically significant effects in a small subset of the Alzheimer’s patients. The benefits for that subset of people show that it decreases your cognitive decline by about four months over an 18-month period while causing 40% of patients to have brain swelling and many others to have brain bleeding. In many cases you’ll have to undergo regular, expensive MRI’s just to make sure your brain doesn’t sustain serious side effects with many physicians saying this is a significant concern. This is clearly a high-risk drug with not so convincing benefits that the FDA controversially approved even after an independent panel of neurologists and biostatisticians strongly opposed it. There main reason being that those with Alzheimer’s are so desperate for a solution that anything that could at least provide them hope would be better than nothing.
But the truth is, we already have proven strategies to prevent Alzheimer’s in nearly 100% of the population. Those same strategies have been proven to reverse cognitive impairment in nearly all cases. And those same strategies are currently being put to the test to reverse Alzheimer’s disease. And instead of side effects like brain swelling and bleeding, these proven strategies have side effects that include weight loss, muscle gain, and increased life satisfaction. This to me sounds like hope. And if you’re young and not worried about Alzheimer’s disease then I have two things you may want to consider. 1) Alzheimer’s disease has been shown to start in people as early as 20 years old and it’s likely you’re already experiencing cognitive decline right now. And 2), even if you’re not worried about Alzheimer’s, these same strategies can be used to dramatically improve cognitive health allowing you to think quicker, sharper, clearer, and more intelligently no matter your age. These same strategies should be employed by everyone, not only to prevent, slow, and reverse Alzheimer’s but also to live a life to its absolute fullest. Let’s get into it!
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia. It’s a progressive disease that destroys memory and other critical cognitive abilities eventually leading to death. And it’s the fasting growing cause of death affecting nearly 10% of people in their 60’s, 20% of people in their 70s, 30% in their 80s, and 50% of people in their 90s. And these numbers are likely severely underreported because mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the precursor to Alzheimer’s disease and this isn’t being tracked. Most people don’t realize that Alzheimer’s isn’t a disease you just suddenly get. It’s the progression of cognitive decline over years and decades commonly starting in people that are in their 20s and 30s. And the more your cognitive abilities decline, the faster the rate of decline. So, while people may see Alzheimer’s patients decline rapidly, this process started decades ago for everyone at a much slower rate.
The other thing I want to point out is Alzheimer’s disease is not much different than any other disease. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes all have extremely similar underlying issues like chronic stress, inflammation, weight gain, insulin resistance, and atherosclerosis. Although diseases may manifest themselves differently depending on your lifestyle, genetics, and environment, the underlying factors are all the same. It’s why you see many people with comorbidities or multiple of these conditions at once. For example, atherosclerosis is a condition where cholesterol plaque builds up in your arteries which is commonly known as heart disease. Well, this same mechanism is occurring at the same time in your brain which is leading to Alzheimer’s disease too. For example, below is a picture of the arteries in someone’s brain who’s healthy. They’re wide open and allowing blood to pass through efficiently. And next to that is a picture of someone with clogged arteries in their brain not allowing blood to pass efficiently. Those are images from demented patients.
There’s not a lot of difference between these two conditions. Although the buildup of plaque may manifest itself as heart disease in one person and Alzheimer’s in another person, both people likely have signs of this plaque build-up in all their arteries! These diseases aren’t much different and so instead of finding a drug that prevents plaque build-up, and another for high blood pressure, and weight loss, and insulin resistance, we need to address the true root causes for why any of this is happening. And it all comes back to poor lifestyle. Poor lifestyle choices are the number one contributor to all diseases and nearly all diseases are preventable with a healthy lifestyle. So, here’s how you can not only prevent and slow Alzheimer’s, but potentially reverse it.
Let’s start with fitness. Any physical activity or movement will cause the heart rate to rise and increase blood flow throughout the brain and body. And with increased blood flow, it decreases the amount of buildup within arteries and makes it harder for new plaque to form. It’s like having gunk in your garden hose and the more water you run through it at a higher rate, the greater chance that that gunk gets dislodged. So theoretically, fitness should allow us to help clear up those arteries and stimulate many other healthy processes like muscle gain and cognitive stimulation. But do we have any data to prove this? Well, the Farmingham Longitudinal Study showed that just daily brisk walks reduced risk for Alzheimer’s later in life by 40%. And this is just a daily walk, nothing too strenuous or advanced. But, as you increase your exercise duration and intensity, you get even better results. For example, 47% of people who performed 2-3 resistance exercise sessions per week for 6 months completely reversed mild cognitive decline and returned to normal levels. And these were maintained for 18 months even after stopping the training. And it’s also been shown that moderate to strenuous exercise grows the brain size and increases its neural connections. I mean fitness alone may have a better effect on Alzheimer’s than the new drug that was released. And the more exercise we do, and the more strenuous it is, the better results we get. Now you can obviously go overboard but ideally look to incorporate at 15,000 steps per day, four 30-minute resistance workouts per week and three 30-minute aerobic workouts per week for optimal results at reversing cognitive decline.
Another vital component is nutrition. Although exercise can help prevent plaque from building up in our arteries, if there’s less plaque in our blood then there’s less chance of it ever building up in the first place. So, what increases plaque the most in our blood from a nutritional standpoint? Cholesterol, saturated foods, and added sugar. Or more commonly animal products and processed food as whole plant foods don’t contain cholesterol or added sugars and have minimal saturated fats. It turns out that reducing these dietary sources of cholesterol, saturated fats, and added sugars prevents the release of beta amyloid, the plaque found in the brain. Reducing these dietary sources also makes it easier to clear out existing beta amyloid from the brain. So, the idea is, eating a healthier diet centered around whole plant foods will reduce our cholesterol levels and blood pressure levels. And as it turns out, those with high cholesterol levels have a 3 times greater chance of getting Alzheimer’s and those with a high blood pressure have a 2.5 times greater chance of getting Alzheimer’s. And if you have high blood pressure and cholesterol, it gets even worse. And the overwhelming body of evidence suggests that meat consumption is the leading dietary link to Alzheimer’s with eggs, high-fat dairy, and sweets following closely behind. So, ideally, we want to eliminate our consumption of animal-based products and processed food and focus on a whole foods plant-based diet that avoids added sugar, oil, and salt. This too seems like a more effective treatment that any drug available today.
Next let’s cover the most overlooked part of our day, sleep. Most people think of sleep as a time to recoup their energy reserve, but sleep is so much more than that. Sleep is what consolidates memories, processes our emotions, enhances our immune system, and cleans up toxic waste. One of the most important scientific findings in the past decade around sleep, is recognizing that there are glial cells in our brain whose primary job is to clean up toxic waste in the brain. And these cells are 10-20 times more active at night during deep sleep. And to top it all off, one of the toxins they remove during the night is beta amyloid, that brain plaque I’ve been mentioning. You can think of everything we do awake during the day as low-grade brain damage where toxins and beta amyloid are steadily building up in the brain from daily waking life. And if you’re not getting proper deep sleep, or high-quality sleep in general then this toxin removal process performed by the glial cells is severely impacted. It causes more plaque to remain in the brain which then decreases your ability to sleep well. And this becomes a vicious cycle of poor sleeping leading to plaque buildup, and plaque buildup leading to poor sleep. And it’s why this link between low-quality sleep and Alzheimer’s is so strong. In fact, that there hasn’t been a single case leading up to Alzheimer’s where a person’s sleep wasn’t already in a state of disruption. And it’s why 60% of Alzheimer’s patients have at least one clinical sleep disorder already like sleep apnea. So ideally, you first want to see a sleep doctor and get any sleep disorders resolved immediately. After that, you want to get 7-9 hours of consistent, high-quality sleep. And I can’t emphasize high-quality enough as so many people sleep 7-9 hours and are still tired when they wake up. That isn’t high-quality sleep.
Lastly, I want to talk about multiple aspects of cognitive health. What is happening during cognitive decline is that neurons are die off quicker than they’re replaced. This causes the brain the shrink and reduces its cognitive abilities. But one of the ways to fight against this is to have more neural connections in your brain and a larger cognitive reserve. This means that when neurons die, it’ll have less of an effect because you have a larger stockpile of connections readily available. It also means you’re more resilient to brain damage and have a larger buffer to work with against cognitive decline. All of this makes you less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. So, what are some ways we can increase our neural connections and cognitive reserve? First, increase meaning social interactions. Social environments can be taxing on the brain as you’re developing thoughts, communicating, reading body language, and listening. Second, challenge yourself with complex tasks. Complexity causes your brain to adapt from the positive stress and create new neural connections. And third, learn something new. Whether it’s learning an instrument, or a language, learning new things also requires the brain to create new neural connections and increase its cognitive reserve. And ideally, you can get all three of these benefits at once by joining board game club or rec sport league. For example, I’ve recently picked up pickleball where I’m continually challenging my skills, learning about new strategies, and being social in a team environment. Activities like this are a golden opportunity to improve your cognitive health.
Alzheimer’s is a serious disease with sad and debilitating consequences. But no one just gets Alzheimer’s. They’ve been experiencing cognitive decline for years until its finally hit a point of clinical diagnosis. The remarkable thing is, it’s nearly 100% preventable with proper lifestyle changes. But if you are at the point of clinical diagnosis, or know someone who is, we also know that these same lifestyle changes can absolutely slow the disease tremendously. And while no study has ever proven Alzheimer’s disease reversal, there are ongoing studies from Dr. Dean Ornish and others using these exact lifestyle changes. And I’m confident that with an extremely high-level of compliance using the strategies I listed previously in fitness, nutrition, sleep, and cognition, that one day we will reverse Alzheimer’s disease like we’re reversed heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. And this is an avenue far better than any drug today. This is a lifestyle far healthier and happier than many are living today. This is myHealthSciences.
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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe
Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.
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