New Studies Confirm : Healthy Lifestyle Delay the Onset of Alzheimer’s

12/08/2014 Tags: all, science, health

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Modern medicine is still puzzled by Alzheimer’s disease, and once the diagnosis is clearly formulated and established, doctors can do very little to stop its progression. Alzheimer’s disease is a manifestation of brain degeneration. There are several kinds of neurological diseases that are a result of degenerative processes in the central nervous system, the most prominent being Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. While both conditions cause considerably disability, especially among the elderly, their symptoms are quite different. Parkinson’s disease is caused by degeneration of dopamine mediated pathways, which is the loss of neurons that utilize dopamine for neurotransmission in a brain region called substantia nigra. Shaking (medically known as tremor) and poor movement control are the most obvious signs of Parkinson’s. Although also caused by degeneration of functional nervous pathways, Alzheimer’s disease is slightly different in its manifestations. It is, at least partially, caused by a gradual loss of neurons that utilize acetylcholine for neurotransmission, which translates into progressive memory impairment and deficiencies in social communication. Besides the degeneration of acetylcholine pathways, other mechanisms can be implicated in Alzheimer’s, but this pathological process seems the most important since acetylcholine enhancing drugs can, at least in less severe cases, provide some degree of relief. Nonetheless, the pathology of Alzheimer’s is considerably more complicated, and involves the formation of abnormal amyloid plaques, widespread inflammation and a reduced volume of several brain regions. No cure and no solid treatment strategy that would stop Alzheimer’s disease from advancing have been found yet, so delaying the onset of the disease or preventing rapid mental decline are the only effective methods to manage this medical disorder.


A team of Swedish medical researchers from the Karolinska Institut have found solid evidence that the progression of Alzheimer’s disease can be slowed significantly through several lifestyle changes and cognitive interventions. These lifestyle adjustments include engaging in regular physical exercise, performing mental exercises aimed at preserving mental sharpness, engaging in social interaction and meaningful communication with peers, changing the diet to include more vegetables and fruits, and managing the risk factors that can lead to cardiovascular problems. Researchers found that reducing the impact of risk factors that may cause cardiovascular disease is also beneficial in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s. Making these lifestyle adjustments creates favourable conditions to prevent mental decline for years, and may delay Alzheimer’s disease by preserving brain health and limiting the negative influence of poor habits.


What Are the Physiologic Abnormalities That Cause Alzheimer’s Disease?


The abnormal physiological processes that lead to the appearance of typical Alzheimer’s symptoms are still investigated extensively. The processes that cause extensive brain degeneration appear to be very complex and numerous factors are implicated. Genetics seem to play a significant role since individuals who have one or both parents affected by Alzheimer’s are statistically more vulnerable to this neurological disorder. However, the probabilities and risk factors are far more complex, and numerous other external factors may be implicated, such as an infection with the herpes simplex virus, persistent exposure to stress or lack of sufficient mental stimulation over many years. Scientists have observed that individuals who perform tasks that are intellectually challenging suffer from mental decline less frequently or the symptoms occur later in their lives when compared to individuals who do not engage in mentally demanding activities. Therefore, even if one has some genetic influences that may make him or her vulnerable to brain degenerative processes in general and Alzheimer’s disease in particular, these influences can be diminished considerably through regularly practiced mental exercise or intellectual work.


Here are some of the most important brain abnormalities found by researchers through brain imaging techniques in Alzheimer’s patients:


* A general atrophy of the brain is observed in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, which correlates relatively well with the experienced mental decline, loss of memory and physical impairment. The cortex of the brain is reduced, which negatively impacts numerous functions of the central nervous system, such as the quality of long term memory, the ability to communicate verbally with peers and emotional control.  


* A specific loss of neurons that use acetylcholine for communication has been proposed as a mechanism for this disease, but this abnormality does not explain all aspects of Alzheimer’s disease. While acetylcholine enhancing medication is slightly effective in ameliorating some of the symptoms temporarily, it does not have a dramatic effect on the course of the disease. Therefore, the degeneration of neuronal pathways may be generalised rather than specific for cholinergic neurons.


* Amyloid plaques in the brain are consistently found in Alzheimer’s sufferers. Amyloid is a type of insoluble protein that tends to accumulate in the spaces between neurons. It may also contain cellular structures that are abnormally deposited outside brain cells along with the insoluble protein. This amyloid accumulation may disrupt the normal function of neurons or may cause widespread neuro-inflammation. Medical researchers have not yet formulated the precise connection between the formation of amyloid plaques and brain degeneration, but it is certain that they exert a negative effect on the function of neurons and play a role in the progression of this neurological disorder. 


Finnish Study Evaluates Long Term Effects of Preventive Interventions for Alzheimer’s Disease


A special program developed by Finnish medical researchers was aimed at monitoring the cognitive performance and general health of individuals who were at risk for Alzheimer’s disease and age related dementia. The study was unique since the effects of various interventions were observed long enough to formulate valid conclusions.  For two years, 1260 patients who were included in the risk group of developing dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease were monitored to identify signs of mental decline progression or a positive protective effect exerted by several interventions aimed at preserving their overall health and cognitive abilities. The cognitive performance of the monitored individuals was accurately measured at the beginning of the study, and the selected patients showed average or lower cognitive capacities when compared to healthy individuals in the same age group. These results indicated that the selected individuals were at a higher risk of brain degenerative processes, including Alzheimer’s induced dementia. The observed patients were divided into two groups. The first group of patients benefited from standard medical care consisting in the best available counseling and advice about Alzheimer’s disease, and was subjected to regular tests of their cognitive performance. The second group benefited from several additional interventions that were aimed at improving their overall physical health, but also at preserving their brain health and mental sharpness specifically.


Here are the interventions that were consistently applied to the second group of high risk individuals over the course of two years.

* Group and individual sessions focused on providing solid nutrition advice for the observed patients. The sessions included recommendations on the necessity to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their daily diet, the benefits of eating more fish and limiting the consumption of high-cholesterol foods and saturated fats. There were seven group sessions and three additional individual sessions that were aimed at positively influencing the dietary choices of the observed individuals.


* Exercise sessions were also included among the implemented interventions. Three months after the start of the study, the second group of observed patients was involved in strength training performed once or twice per week. This form of training was aimed at building muscle strength and training muscular endurance in individuals who are at high risk for mental decline. Cardiovascular training was also incorporated, and it consisted in cardio exercise sessions practiced two, three or four times per week as the study progressed. The frequency of strength training sessions was kept the same throughout the entire duration of the study, while the frequency of cardiovascular training sessions was gradually increased to five or six times per week after fitness levels of the observed patients was considerably improved.


* Individuals were engaged in cognitive training sessions. Eleven group sessions during which the patients performed a variety of cognitive exercises aimed at maintaining intellectual capacities and train reasoning abilities were supplemented with numerous individual sessions. Cognitive exercise may help with preserving adequate levels of mental sharpness in individuals who are at risk for age related cognitive decline and senile dementia, which are the main consequences of Alzheimer’s disease.


* The last intervention consisted in monitoring and correcting cardiovascular related health risks. Many researchers believe that these risks are closely connected to the risks associated with age related mental decline caused by Alzheimer’s disease. The intervention applied on group two members consisted in consulting with a qualified nurse once in three months to monitor the cholesterol levels and measure blood pressure in observed individuals. The nurse was able to detect abnormalities and formulate valid recommendations on how to correct the parameters in order to reduce the cardiovascular related risks to a minimum. Patients also were instructed to talk to a physician every year about any health changes related to their cardiovascular health they may have experienced during the period of the study. In other words, patients were instructed to reduce their risk of high blood pressure and atherosclerosis (also known as heart disease) by regularly checking their cardiovascular health during regular appointments with a nurse or a doctor.


After two years have passed, the researchers evaluated both groups on a variety of mental and overall health parameters. Their goal was to identify subtle changes between the groups and assess the effectiveness of the implemented interventions compared to regular medical care available to high risk individuals susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. The cognitive performance, overall health of the central nervous system, memory and communication abilities was evaluated again to assess the impact of the applied interventions. Medical researchers observed that the second group, which benefited from the above mentioned interventions, performed better on average than patients from the first group. The improvements and the delay of cognitive decline observed in the second group were statistically significant. These findings have led medical experts to believe that a planned adjustment of one’s lifestyle through a better nutrition, regular physical and cognitive exercise, and management of risk factors related to cardiovascular health can considerably delay the onset of bothersome Alzheimer’s symptoms and preserve mental sharpness longer. Since medication and standard medical treatments have very little effect on the course of Alzheimer’s disease, individuals are encouraged to focus on adjusting their lifestyle to protect their brain from degenerative processes and cognitive decline for many years.