When President Ronald Reagan announced that a decade ago, it shook us. Sure, everyone dies; and not all of us leave behind the legacy of winning the Cold War. But a disease that slowly robs you of your mental faculties is a nasty way to go.
Alzheimers was the eighth-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2001. An estimated 4.5 million Americans and 13 million people worldwide already suffer from the disease, and as populations age its predicted that by 2025 more than 37 million people worldwide will be afflicted. But medical research will prevent that – as may preventative measures you can take right now.
Amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are the main indicators of Alzheimers. Plaques are dense deposits of protein and cellular material outside and around the brains nerve cells. Tangles are twisted fibers that build up inside the nerve cells. Its generally believed that the deposition of amyloid is the primary cause of Alzheimers and thus they have become the prime target for therapy, though a minority belief is that the plaques dont cause the disease but rather merely accompany it.
Over the horizon are so-called "adult stem cells" (ASCs), extracted from people of any age and from umbilical cords and placentas. Not only dont they carry the moral baggage of embryonic stem cells (ESCs), but research with them is much further along.
Indeed, several studies have converted stem cells from both marrow and the central nervous system into brain cells. Stem Cells, Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., for example, has purified stem cells from human brain tissue, multiplied them, then transplanted these into mouse brains. There they grew into human neurons and surrounding brain tissue called glia. Thus it appears we have the building blocks of brain repair for Alzheimers and other neurological diseases; we just need to figure out how to use them.
Unfortunately, embryonic stem cell researchers have so powerful a PR machine that many influential people dont even know theres an alternative. Thus Nancy Reagan is a staunch ESC research supporter, while a CNN anchor declared incredulously: "Ronald Reagans death from Alzheimers has not changed the presidents stance on (ESC) research." The Washington Post published an article the day before Reagans funeral declaring "Stem Cells an Unlikely Therapy for Alzheimers" and in a sense it was correct. The 1,100-word was entirely about ESCs. There was no hint that ASCs exist.
In the meantime it appears there are numerous things you can do to delay or perhaps even prevent Alzheimers, including merely reaching for the medicine cabinet.
Couch potatoes apparently have an exceptional risk of developing Alzheimers.
A slew of studies also show that with statin drugs used to lower cholesterol, a pill a day may keep dementia away. A recent large study found those taking statins for their cholesterol were 71 percent less likely to develop dementia, including Alzheimers, than the comparison group. These drugs currently require a prescription in the United States,but will go over-the-counter in Great Britain next month and will probably do so soon here.
A diet heavy in fruits and vegetables appears helpful, perhaps in part because they combat a process associated with aging called oxidation. You can also try antioxidant supplements such as alpha lipoic acid and coenzyme q10, vitamins C and E, and the minerals selenium and zinc.
And speaking of heavy, lose weight. A new study that followed nuns, priests, and Roman Catholic brothers for six years found that those with type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes had a 65 percent greater chance of developing Alzheimers. And the best way to get type 2 is to get fat.
Finally, theres a strong link between Alzheimers and potatoes – of the couch variety.
Physical exercise may help stave off development of the disease. Mental exercise such as reading appears to create "cognitive reserve," such that if you do get Alzheimers the symptoms may not manifest until much later. An as-yet unpublished study at Clevelands Case Western University Medical School found those less mentally and physically active in middle age were three times more likely to get Alzheimers as they grayed.
Researchers will find a cure for Alzheimers. For now, prevention is up to you. Do it for yourself and your loved ones. And win one for the Gipper.