Researchers are trying to find a way to screen for and prevent Alzheimer's -- but we already know one of the best preventive measures.
A few years ago, one of my friends lost her mom to Alzheimer’s disease. It was already fairly advanced when she was diagnosed, so her decline was rapid — and for my friend, it was confusing, frightening, and ultimately devastating. Her sweet, soft-spoken mother was daily forgetting family traditions and her children’s names, or having sudden character changes, often seemingly without provocation. At times she was hostile and aggressive, throwing wild accusations at her husband and children. She stopped sleeping at night and would prowl the house, cooking things and then forgetting to take the pan off the hot stove, or defeating the deadbolted front door and wandering through the neighborhood in her nightgown, with no idea of who she was or where she lived.
She died about two years after she was diagnosed, and my friend said that she didn’t feel like death had taken her mother, since Alzheimer’s had taken her years before. The trauma of watching their mother descend into Alzheimer’s was the hardest thing their family had ever experienced. It’s the hardest thing many people will ever experience, but because Alzheimer’s is a leading cause of death in our country, many people will, in fact, experience it.
What if it didn’t have to be this way? What if, instead of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, we found ways to prevent it from happening in the first place?
Researchers have recently discovered that the plaque formation associated with late-stage Alzheimer’s begins far earlier than they realized — decades earlier, according to Medium:
“This is an exciting time,” the Alzheimer’s Association’s Dean Hartley told me as he looks to the future. “If most people start symptoms at 65, then we might extrapolate and say we need to be treating at 45. So you’d go in at say, age 40 or 45 and get a beta-amyloid checkup to see if you need some type of treatment or intervention.”
Researchers are exploring some fringe areas as well. As it turns out, the plaques may not be all bad. Just recently, we have learned that some people with Alzheimer’s have higher levels of yeast, bacteria and viruses in their brains as compared to people of similar age without the disease. Scientists now wonder if plaques occur as part of the body’s natural defense system to protect the brain from pathogens. As a result, preventing Alzheimer’s might have some parallels with preventing infectious diseases. And, that simply getting rid of all the plaque could be disastrous. Instead, plaque in the brain may need to be reduced, but not eliminated — similar to cholesterol in the blood.
The idea of screening for Alzheimer’s in the same way we routinely screen for colon and breast cancers is intriguing and appealing, obviously. But the confusion over exactly what purpose the plaques serve is even more intriguing, particularly given that they occur along with higher levels of yeast, bacteria, and viruses. It may be that Alzheimer’s weakens the body’s immune system, much the same way Type II diabetes does.
Given that research is increasingly pointing to sugar as a probable cause of Alzheimer’s as well as Type II diabetes — so much so that many doctors have begun referring to Alzheimer’s as Type 3 Diabetes — this would come as no surprise.
But if our processed, high-sugar diet is indeed the cause of Alzheimer’s, the most effective way to prevent it would be to limit processed foods (especially sugar) and start eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, protein, and fat.
But then I think about how hard it was for my friend to lose her mom that way, and how she still cries when she talks about the fact that her mom didn’t even know who she was the last time she saw her, and those extra 11 cookies no longer seem very tempting.
I hope Alzheimer’s research does eventually find some way to screen and prevent the disease’s progression, because it’s a terrible thing. But I also hope that as more people learn about the role sugar plays in Alzheimer’s, more of us will choose to do everything we can to prevent our families from having to experience losing us while we’re still alive. No matter how hard it is.