As the baby boomer generation ages, rates of neurodegenerative disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are on the rise, with the United States being the most impacted westernized nation in the world. It is believed that many factors play a role in the onset and development of neurodegenerative related disorders. These factors, including things like genetics, lifestyle, and the environment can impact the brain causing atrophy, neuronal damage, inflammation and mitochondrial dysfunction. These factors can also cause free radical production leading to oxidative stress and damage to our DNA, RNA, organs, lipids and proteins. This damage can lead to cognitive impairment ranging anywhere from mild dementia to Alzheimer’s disease. Death rates due to these brain disorders have increased 66% among men and 92% among women, affecting over 5,400,000 patients in the United States already in 2016. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are progressive diseases, meaning the majority of patients who will develop these disorders do not even know it yet, with projections of nearly 160,000,000 people globally by 2050. ¹ The emotional and financial toll these disorders take is also great. According to the New England Journal of Medicine the average annual cost of care for a single dementia patient is $50,000 with total costs ranging from $159-$215 billion nationwide. ² (some sources predicting up to $236 billion in 2016 alone!) According to David Perlmutter, author of New York Times bestselling book Grain Brain, today’s current treatment methods, like cholinersterase inhibitors, are just putting out the smoke and not dealing with the fire. With nearly every monotherapeutic clinical trial failing to provide effective pharmacological treatments, it’s time to start looking at integrative approaches to care.
We need to start considering treatment methods that are preventative, financially acceptable and have minimal side effects. Dr. Dale Bredesen, an expert in neurodegenerative diseases, describes Alzheimer’s as being a roof with 36 holes. A drug may be effective in plugging one of the holes, but we need to take a functional medicine approach to fill the remaining 35 holes. His most recent research is some of the first to show that we have the potential to reverse the effects of cognitive decline through personalized therapeutic approaches to care. Bredesen discusses the metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration protocol (MEND) which factors in multiple aspects which could be contributing to the underlying pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease. The MEND protocol takes dozens of different interventional approaches to the molecular mechanisms of cognitive decline and incorporates the necessary changes based off of personalized therapeutic programs. These integrative interventions include many aspects like low-carbohydrate/gluten free dietary changes, stress reduction via yoga and meditation, addressing hormonal imbalances, nutrient supplementation, methylation improvements, herbs and spices, brain stimulation, drugs, etc. This approach helps to identify all of the factors contributing to the plasticity network imbalance on an individual level and aims to achieve optimization, not just normalization. You can read more about the amazing outcomes of this study here.
If you’re a science nerd like me here are some additional studies looking at the effects of lifestyle and dietary changes on overall brain function and health.
A study published in the Journal of Neurology showed that having elevated blood sugar levels of above 105 mg/dL can lead to an increased risk for dementia development by actually shrinking the hippocampus, the region of our brains responsible for memory and learning. The study found that patients with higher hemoglobin A1c levels (hemoglobin proteins binded by sugars) had higher risk of inflammation and oxidative stress and showed decreased recall and learning ability. These patients also showed a 0.5% shrinkage in the brain over those with lower blood sugar levels.
A study done at the Mayo Clinic and published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found that the risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders increased by 89% when eating a high carbohydrate diet. The study also found that patients who ate a diet high in unsaturated healthy fats, one rich in omega-3’s, decreased their risk of dementia development by 42%. Additional studies have found that low carbohydrate and high fat diets also lowered fasting insulin levels, decreased LDL, increased HDL, lowered C-reactive protein levels (inflammation marker) and reduced overall risk of cardiovascular disease.