Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the gradual destruction of nerve cells in the brain, which ultimately leads to senility and dementia. The condition is characterised by a reduction in mental function, loss of short-term memory, and mood problems such as irritability or childish behaviour. Alzheimer’s disease can occur at any age but is most common after the age of 50.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease is not known, but there is at least some evidence that a proportion of cases are linked to the toxic effects of the metal aluminium. More than one study has found accumulations of aluminium in the part of the brain affected by the disease (1,2). In one study, using aluminium-containing deodorants appeared to increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 60% (3). However, some studies have not found a link between aluminium and Alzheimer’s disease (4). Clearly, this is a controversial area, but it does seem prudent for people to do what they can to avoid aluminium exposure. In general, aluminium-containing antacid medication, and food packaged in aluminium cartons or cooked in aluminium pans should be avoided. The use of aluminium-free deodorants is another wise precaution, and these can usually be found in health food stores.
There does seem to be some important links between diet and Alzheimer’s disease. A high fat diet seems to increase the risk of the condition, while a diet rich in oily fish (e.g. salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel, herring) and other ‘omega-3 fatty acids’ such as flaxseed oil seem to protect against the disease. A high level of monounsaturated fats (e.g. extra virgin olive oil) has also been found to slow brain function decline. A diet rich in cereals and grain also appears to be protective (5).
There has been a lot of recent interest in the role of damaging molecules called ‘free radicals’ in Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly, vitamin E (an important ‘antioxidant’ nutrient which can help reduce damage due to free radicals) at a dose of 2000 IU per day has been shown to help protect against Alzheimer’s disease (6). High levels of the blood chemical ‘homocysteine’ have also been found in Alzheimer’s disease sufferers, and there is potential for reducing this with vitamins B6 and B12 and folic acid. A raised homocysteine (as ascertained by a blood test) can often be
successfully treated with supplements of vitamin B6 (at least 10 mg per day), vitamin B12 (at least 50 mcg per day) and folic acid (at least 400 mcg per day) (7,8,9).
There are a few natural treatment options for Alzheimer’s disease, one of which is acetyl-L-carnitine. This substance can increase the production of the important brain chemical acetylcholine. Acetyl-L-carnitine has been shown to improve memory, and slow progression of the disease (10). The normal recommended dose is 500 – 1,000 mg, three times a day.
Another natural substance that can be very effective in improving mental function is the herb Ginkgo biloba. This can improve circulation to the brain, and appears to enhance memory and quality of life. Four double-blind studies have found Ginkgo biloba to be of benefit in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (11,12,13,14). The normal recommended dose is 40 - 80 mg of standardised extract, three times a day.