Alzheimer’s disease is always a devastating diagnosis for patients and their families alike. Few illnesses are as life-changing, and it could indeed feel as traumatic as a death sentence. Due to the nature of the disease, family of Alzheimer’s patients find that they are forced to radically change their interaction with a loved one who gradually changes completely, and having access to reliable information about care and intervention becomes paramount. Yet, there is compelling evidence that this disease could not only be prevented, but perhaps even reversed with, most notedly, the right diet.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Movies like Still Alice have considerably raised public awareness of Alzheimer’s. The US National Institute on Aging defines the disease as “an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.” Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, an umbrella term for several neurogenerative disorders of which declining cognitive skills is the hallmark.
Signs, Symptoms & Prevalence
The most common early sign of Alzheimer’s is an inability to remember newly-learned information. Progressively debilitating, most patients eventually present with mood swings, paranoia, confusion, complete memory loss and difficulty to speak, swallow and walk. The disease is usually late-onset, mainly affecting people over 65 years of age, but those with a genetic predisposition for it can show signs as early as in their 30s. It is currently estimated that Alzheimer’s affect over 5 million Americans, with 5% being early onset, and is ranked as the 6th leading cause of death of older Americans. However, more recent estimates suggest that it may follow as a third leading cause, after heart disease and cancer.
What causes it? The answer is not simple, and researchers suggest that we don’t fully understand the complex causes yet. So, shortly put, Alzheimer’s occurs due to a variety of changes in the brain. Causes can differ from patient to patient, but, in very simple terms, the disease damages brain cells and causes the brain to atrophy. Learn here in more detail about how the brain works and how Alzheimer’s affect it.
Who will get Alzheimer’s?
It is important to realise that Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of ageing. While age is the greatest risk factor for developing it, genetic predisposition is another strong one, together with certain health, lifestyle and environmental factors. However, many of the latter are controllable, and research indicates that Alzheimer’s symptoms can be arrested or even reversed with the correct diet. One of the strongest proponents of this theory is undoubtedly Dr Mary Newport.
In 2008, Mary Newport, MD, Cincinnati, Ohio, started feeding her husband, Steve, large doses of coconut oil after reading a small study on medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). Steve had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2001, and displayed severe symptoms by 2008. The coconut oil reduced his symptoms remarkably, and over years seemed to slow down the progression of the disease. His family felt that he has returned to them, even though his health remained fragile and he still needed care before his death last year. This partial reversal of her husband’s disease seemed miraculous and spurred Newport’s own research and ongoing lobbying for more research into coconut and MCT oil’s effects on the brain. Her theory: “People who have a neurodegenerative disease that involves decreased glucose uptake in neurons, could benefit from taking higher amounts of coconut and/or MCT oil to produce ketones, which may be used by brain cells as energy.” ‘Decreased glucose uptake’ is a condition of diabetes and insulin resistance, and can be explained as the body having ‘numbed’ itself against insulin. Insulin is the body’s ‘messenger’ that signals the presence of glucose for uptake by organs, and it is, amongst others, a brain fuel. Glucose is derived from complex carbohydrates such as starches and sugar, staples of the modern Western diet, and it can be argued that the over-consumption of glucose, derived from sugary, starchy foods, have resulted in bodies that are unable to metabolise glucose properly, leaving brains depleted of energy.
Ketones are chemical components excreted by the liver when the body burns fat, and an excellent source of energy for brain cells. Due to its chemical composition, MCTs, such as coconut oil, are readily available in the blood stream, and gets burned easily to make fuel for the energy-starved neurons of the Alzheimer brain. Other good ways to optimise ketone levels in the brain (hyperketonemia), is to follow a ketogenic diet, or supplement with a potent ketogenic agent.
The ketogenic diet essentially switches the body’s primary source of cellular fuel from glucose to stored body and dietary fat. It allows consumption of foods such as meat, poultry, fish, and natural fats and oils, and restricts the consumption of complex carbohydrates, i.e. sugars and starches. Through this, the body is starved of glucose, so fat is burned and ketones are released. This diet, physical exercise and keeping the mind sharp through reading, playing games like chess etc., are theorised to be good preventative measures against all dementia-related diseases. The diet is furthermore touted to be beneficial in the treatment of many diseases other than Alzheimer’s, and is worth investigating. It’s not for everyone, though, so it’s advisable to do research, and consult with a medical professional before embarking on a drastic dietary change.
Exogenous ketone supplements available to the public comprise beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) salts, and sometimes MCT oils. These products seem to be professionally endorsed by, and recommended for sport and exercise junkies, and only some guidelines are spelled out for its use by Alzheimer’s patients.
As with nearly all findings flying in the face of medical convention, the keto cure for Alzheimer’s and related diseases don’t go without resistance and criticism, and not all concern is unwarranted. However, the past two decades have seen sufficient studies pointing to its potential, so research is ongoing. A randomized study by the National Institutes of Health (US) of the efficacy of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s is on the books for next year, for instance.
So, on the question of whether diet can cure or prevent Alzheimer’s – it’s not clear yet. But the signs are promising, and the significance of food and nutrition for mental acuity and health is not a foreign one. Therefore, watch this space…