Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia (AD) is typically defined as a progressive brain disorder which slowly erodes memory and thinking skills. It is the most common cause of dementia in the US. There is initially damage to neurons, causing loss of communication between neurons and ultimately destruction of the neurons.
AD typically begins with memory loss, followed by cognitive decline, then personality and behaviour changes, followed by loss of language which then progresses to inability to communicate with loved ones and ultimately complete dependence on others for all activities of daily living. The disease is progressive and there is no medication that can halt or even slow down the progression of this dreaded disease. All the currently available medications prescribed are for managing behavior or for other symptomatic relief.
Despite extensive research, the root cause for this disease remains elusive. However, research has identified numerous risk factors which contribute to the development of late onset AD. Nonmodifiable risk factors include an unfavorable genetic profile and advancing age. Modifiable risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, low level of education, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol and depression.
There is some good news. Several studies estimate that half of the cases of AD can be prevented by mitigating the modifiable risk factors which in essence means, following a healthy diet and lifestyle. Dr. Dean Ornish and his colleagues prescribe a 9 step approach to prevent AD. This approach focuses on stopping tobacco, eating a healthy diet (whole food plant based diet), exercise, stress management, adequate sleep and social and cognitive engagement.
Neurologists Dean and Ayesha Sherzai similarly advocate for a healthy diet and lifestyle and their strategies are nearly identical to the Ornish approach. Their dietary strategy reduces the risk for AD and is similarly centered on whole plant foods.
The above approach or strategy should not come as a surprise to the readers of our blog. I am certain many of you can recall that the 6 pillars of Lifestyle Medicine are nutrition (predominantly a whole food plant based diet), exercise, stress management, adequate sleep, forming and maintaining relationships, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol. This approach has already proven its power to eliminate the staggering global burden of chronic diseases such as heart disease and is now becoming increasingly clear that it may be our most potent tool in our toolkit to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s Disease.