Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is now as epidemic as heart disease, diabetes or cancer in the U.S., except Alzheimer’s is always fatal. Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death for all Americans, and the only cause of death among the top 10 in the United States that can’t be cured, or even significantly slowed with conventional medicine.
But what if something else were possible?
With AD, there is no silver lining, no blessing in disguise, no happy ending whatsoever for anyone involved. It sucks the spirit out of everyone it touches—patient, family and caregivers alike—until it has extinguished at least one spirit forever, if not more.
And as you wither inside watching your loved one’s mind turn into mush, sometimes it can take everything you’ve got to hold onto some sense of meaning, some sense of faith that world isn’t random and cruel.
I’ve personally experienced the toll this wretched disease takes on everyone around it. You see, Alzheimer’s was my hateful, horrifying houseguest every day for over three years. And I have a lot to say about it.
Every minute—in fact, before you get to the end of this article—another American will develop Alzheimer’s. One out of every eight older adults, or 5.4 million Americans and 30 million people globally has the disease.
By 2050, without effective prevention and treatment, an estimated 160 million people globally would have the disease, including 16 million Americans, which could potentially bankrupt the Medicare system, costing over $20 TRILLION dollars.
That’s more than the total cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, just for Alzheimer’s disease care!
Unlike several other chronic illnesses, the incidence of Alzheimer’s is on the rise; recent estimates suggest that it has become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. behind cardiovascular disease and cancer.
There’s no doubt about it: We are in the midst of a national emergency, and we’re woefully unprepared.
The Full Cost Accounting of Caregiving
But if the direct cost to society weren’t high enough, in 2011, the Alzheimer’s Association estimated that more than 15 million friends and family members provided over 17.4 billion hours of unpaid care valued at $210 billion dollars.
The role of caregiving for a family member with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is primarily a woman’s role, and this role has grave financial and medical repercussions for us. Of the 15 million Americans caring for a person with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) or other dementia, about 75% are women, mostly wives and daughters.
For decades, women have fought for respect as mothers and for recognition that mothering is real work. Now we have to fight for respect as caregivers and recognition that caregiving is real work, too—billions of dollars worth of stressful, heartbreaking, often thankless work.
Many women also face the extremely difficult challenge of balancing the demands of caregiving with their marriage, children and employment.
For most women, the time, energy, and stress of caring for an elder family member or spouse leads to a significant reduction in work hours and annual salary, as well as a loss of benefits, including health insurance. It also leads to a grave reduction in earned Social Security benefits later.
Primarily due to caregiving responsibilities, women average 14 years out of the paid workforce. And when a two-income family is forced to lose one person’s income altogether because of caregiving responsibilities, it is usually financially devastating, and deeply affects any children in the home.
Caring for someone with AD is very, very stressful. In fact, the American Psychological Association’s recently released report on Stress in America was dedicated in large part to their findings about the most stressed out population in America. No, it’s not cops, or poor people, or even soldiers returning from war—as stressed out as these folks might be.
The most stressed out people in America, with the shortest life expectancy of all, are caregivers, particularly caregivers living with a family member with dementia or AD.
Institutionalization and specialized care is very expensive, of course. But, taking care of your spouse or parent at home is not much cheaper, and it has other collateral costs too. Unless you’re a professional caregiver, you’re unlikely to be able to cope with the demands of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
You will eventually have to give up your job, and even your social life as your loved one grows to need 24-7 supervision. If you have children, their needs will be frequently compromised as you become increasingly unable to leave the house (even for a quick trip to the store), and more and more of your time is spent managing the disturbing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
And imagine your heartbreak and grief as your spouse or parent transforms into a shell of their former self, right in front of you, in spite of all your sacrifices and hard work!
Many people don’t realize that AD is primarily a mental illness until the later stages. Alzheimer’s doesn’t just take your memory, it takes your sanity. Many people with AD not only lose all short term memory (as if that weren’t undignified enough!), but they also often exhibit symptoms of clinical depression, anxiety and panic, schizophrenia, psychosis, and/or paranoid delusions.
Most family caregivers are alone and unprepared on every level to deal with these very erratic, disturbing and sometimes extremely dangerous behaviors from their loved ones with dementia.
In later stages, Alzheimer’s takes away the ability to learn, read, speak, eat, walk, and use the bathroom, rendering the victim as dependent on the caregiver as a 150-pound newborn baby, until the brain finally atrophies so badly it can no longer sustain a heartbeat.
Watching this happen to your loved one (despite your best efforts) is very hard—traumatic even. Depending on the source, up to 80% of dementia caregivers report very high levels of stress, 65% of dementia caregivers have depressive symptoms and up to a third of dementia caregivers have clinical depression.
It is extremely common for caregiving spouses to die from stress-related illnesses before their charges do.
Chronically high levels of caregiver stress have serious health impacts, including depressed immune response, and elevated inflammatory markers in the blood which are associated with cardiovascular disease and increased vulnerability to cancer and autoimmune disease. Caregiving is precisely why I have struggled to get on top of my chronic fatigue syndrome and adrenal burnout, despite adopting the best diet and treatments for the illness.
The chronic stress of caregiving doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease, and increases the risk of mortality 63% over non-caregivers. Family caregivers report having more than twice the rate of chronic medical conditions as non-caregivers. And since many of these caregivers are uninsured because they cannot work, this costs families—and the nation—greatly.
Due to the physical and emotional toll of caregiving on their own health, Alzheimer’s caregivers had $8.7 billion in additional health care costs in 2011.
Women are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of caregiving. We tend to compromise our own lives and personal health when we assume the caregiving role, whether for our children or our dependents with AD. We are often quick to give up exercise, leisure activities, socializing, and personal time for the needs of our loved ones—and our families often let us do it.
This is by no means sustainable for us or for our country, much less for the world.
Now that you’re totally freaked out and sad, the good news is that, like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, Alzheimer’s disease was once very rare. And like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, AD certainly is not inevitable, even if it runs in your family.
In fact, just like heart disease, diabetes and most cancers, Alzheimer’s is a lifestyle disease.
Which means it is also preventable.
A New Way of Looking At Alzheimer’s Disease
Since a high stress lifestyle combined with a diet high in processed foods, sugar and inflammatory, industrial seed oils is THE common denominator in a host of epidemic, chronic diseases that rarely occurred 100 years ago, it would stand to reason that diet and lifestyle might effect Alzheimer’s disease too.
Well, it turns out that a very large body of evidence now suggests that Alzheimer’s is primarily a metabolic disease. Some scientists have gone so far as to rename it Diabetes type 3. (See video below.)
In Type 3 diabetes, brain cells develop insulin resistance and simply cannot get enough glucose to function and die, leaving the brain tissue—and therefore the mind—open to a host of metabolic problems and side effects, just like Type 2 diabetes does to the rest of the body.
Just like Type 2 diabetes can lead to losing a limb or one’s eyesight, the metabolic changes caused by Type 3 diabetes destroys brain cells and jams up neural connections with plaques and tangles. And once those brain cells die, like an amputated limb, they are gone forever. This is why Alzheimer’s is always undignified and always fatal.
But, insulin resistance in the brain not only explains why so many AD patients have incredible sugar dependency (and why diabetics, alcoholics and sugar addicts are at highest risk), but it also points a gigantic, blinking arrow at where to look to prevent, or even treat, Alzheimer’s disease.
Dietary Factors in Alzheimer’s Disease
It is not an accident that people with AD are frequently diabetic, alcoholic or, at least, majorly sugar addicted. Diabetics and alcoholics are at three times the risk for developing Alzheimer’s compared to the general population. This month’s New Scientist lead story makes a powerful case that the standard American diet is as devastating for our brains as it is for our bodies:
“In the U.S. alone, 19 million people have now been diagnosed with [diabetes type 2], while a further 79 million are considered “prediabetic”, showing some of the early signs of insulin resistance. If Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes do share a similar mechanism, levels of dementia may follow a similar trajectory as these people age.”
Can you imagine the ramifications: 19 million people (and growing) at very high risk for Alzheimer’s, and another 79 million (and growing) at high risk? Plenty of research still needs to be done, but it is looking like Alzheimer’s disease could be another catastrophic impact of the industrial processed food system—and the worst discovered thus far.
And if insulin resistance in the brain wasn’t bad enough, a study released in the March 1, 2012 issue of Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry found that high fructose corn syrup commonly contains small amounts of reactive alpha-dicarbonyl compounds which can react with proteins causing neurodegenerative disease, among other problems. And early studies found high intake of fructose was associated with high risk of dementia.
But, you don’t have to have a sweet tooth to eat too much sugar. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day (up to 70 pounds a year). This added sugar is hidden in things like yogurt, ketchup, crackers and low-fat microwave meals to make them taste more appealing.
Then when you add in the fact that the USDA wants us to eat 11 (!) servings of grain-based carbohydrate a day (which is just converted into more sugar in your body), Americans are taking in massive amounts of sugar never seen before in human history.
Diabetes, obesity and heart disease are all epidemic because of our national processed carbohydrate addiction. Alzheimer’s appears to be no different.
Other Dietary Factors
According to new research in the journal Neurology, people who eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA in particular, which is found mostly in wild-caught seafood) and plenty of vitamins B-6, folate, B-12, biotin, zinc, C, D, and E have bigger brains and better cognitive function than those whose diets are unhealthier.
The standard American diet that most of us eat is very low in all of these nutrients, especially zinc, B-vitamins and omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, which are crucial for a healthy brain. Rather, the standard American diet is high in cheap industrial oils (like canola) that contain omega-6s which promote inflammation, including in the brain!
In fact, a deficit in zinc (primarily found in high quality meat and eggs) can lead to a build up of copper in the body and brain. While copper is an essential micronutrient in very small amounts, when not properly balanced by sufficient dietary zinc, it can build up to toxic levels. Zinc is not stored by the body, and must be consumed every day.
Most Americans do not get enough zinc at all, and they have too much copper in their systems already from copper water pipes, vitamin pills, medications, cheap processed foods, and other sources. Unfortunately, a zinc-poor diet can turn copper into a toxic contributor to a number of health conditions. In fact, copper toxicity is a major factor in depression and mental illness, including Alzheimer’s.
Shocking New Research
This may not sound like anything new, but it is, reports Time Magazine. For years, studies have hinted at the right foods to eat to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, but often these recommendations haven’t held up under further study or been replicated by other research. That’s because they tend to be based on observational studies where people self-report what they ate, which is notoriously unreliable data.
The new research, conducted at Oregon Health and Science University, is different. It’s the first study of its kind to measure a variety of nutrient levels in the blood of elder adults and compare them to cognitive test results and MRI scans that measure the brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. It was also the first study to look at combinations of nutrients, rather than just one isolated vitamin at a time.
The bottom line: Those with healthy, nutrient-dense diets lower in sugar/carbohydrate had better mental function scores (including memory, attention tasks, visual skills, spatial skills, and language skills) than those who ate diets heavy in processed foods, packaged foods, fried foods, baked goods, and fast food.
A Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease?
To provide even further evidence to the metabolic theory of Alzheimer’s, in September of 2014, UCLA released results of their small clinical trial on 10 memory-loss patients, some with brain-scan-confirmed patterns of Alzheimer’s.
In this study, called MEND (Metabolic Enhancement for NeuroDegeneration), patients were required to make dramatic lifestyle changes. They avoided simple carbs, gluten and processed foods. They increased their fish intake, took yoga and meditated. They were instructed to take melatonin, get adequate sleep, incorporate vitamin B-12, vitamin D-3 and fish oil.
Within six months, nine patients saw a noticeable improvement in memory. One patient, who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, did not show improvement, which makes sense because no drug or diet can replace brain tissue once it is gone.
However, six of the patients in the study who had to discontinue working were all able to return to their jobs. Some patients were followed up to two and a half years and the memory improvements remained.
According to Dr. Bredesen, author of the study:
“The existing Alzheimer’s drugs affect a single target, but Alzheimer’s disease is more complex. Imagine having a roof with 36 holes in it, and your drug patched one hole very well,” he said. “The drug may have worked, and a single hole may have been fixed, but you still have 35 other leaks, and so the underlying process may not be affected much.”
The study’s finding is contrary to the popular belief that Alzheimer’s is caused by the accumulation of sticky plaques in the brain. Dr. Bredesen believes the amyloid beta peptide, the source of the plaques, has a normal function in the brain, as part of a larger set of molecules that promote signals that cause nerve connections to lapse.
Thus, the increase in the peptide is a symptom, not a root cause of the disease.
Dr. Bredesen therefore thought that, rather than a single targeted agent, the solution might be a multiple-component system approach, in line with the approach for other chronic illnesses.
The findings of this theory suggest that, at least early on before significant brain cell loss has occurred, changing a person’s metabolic processes can bring back memory and cognitive function.
In other words, the Standard American Diet and lifestyle that is very high in stress and processed food, but low in exercise and nutrition causes Alzheimer’s, and a whole food, nutrient-dense diet and healthy lifestyle can help prevent, and even reverse it.
Diet isn’t the only risk factor for Alzheimer’s, of course. But researchers say that diet plus the known factors of age, gender, and genetic mutations explain a whopping 76 percent of the variance between those with more cognitive decline.
“That tells us that structural changes in the brain may be very sensitive to dietary intake,” nutritional epidemiologist Gene Bowman told Time. “That’s quite remarkable.”
Indeed, it is.
A Time for Reckoning
A national conversation about Alzheimer’s and chronic disease and lifestyle in America is long overdue. As you learned in the video above, very promising AD therapies based on diet and ketones from coconut oil can’t come to market because they aren’t Big Pharma pills, and can’t get funding for development.
If we can’t even fund the most promising therapy for dementia and Alzheimer’s to date because it isn’t “profitable,” how can we ever expect to handle this massive national problem, much less address the dietary and lifestyle factors that cause it?
The upside is that our good health is almost always in our own hands.
Alzheimer’s disease takes 10-20 years to develop. This means that you need to start getting your diet and health right in your forties, at the latest.
To prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia decades before it develops, we can make sure that our families eat a whole food, nutrient-dense diet today. We can get enough sun, sleep and exercise and avoid the toxic chemicals, situations and people that can make us sick.
A traditional diet that prevents horrible chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s is full of organic vegetables, grass-fed animal foods and organ meats, wild-caught seafood, and other nutrient-dense, bioavailable sources of Omega-3/DHA, and Vitamins B-6, B-12, folate, zinc, C, D and E.
Supplement your diet with generous amounts of coconut oil, butter and other brain-feeding natural fats, and you have a recipe not just for preventing Alzheimer’s, but for ensuring good, long-term health.
You Can Make A Difference Right NOW
Making sure you and your family eat whole foods and get enough sunshine, sleep and exercise is important, but it’s not enough. All of us (and our children) will soon feel the strain of the Alzheimer’s epidemic on our economy and our lives, no matter how healthy we are.
But, as the number of people with the disease grows, and the cost of providing care skyrockets, our nation can take steps to support Alzheimer’s research, public awareness and education, health provider training, and family caregiver support.
We can also advocate for a farm bill that supports health by subsidizing nutritious whole foods instead of more processed, sugar-laden, factory-made junk.
Most importantly, if someone in your life is caregiving for someone with dementia, AD or other mental illness, you can make a big difference for them by giving them respite for a couple hours so they can go do something for themselves for a change. Caregiving is just too hard to do alone.
- Memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s reversed for first time
- Reversal of cognitive decline: A novel therapeutic program
- Big Food Fights to Keep You Demented
- Sugar and the Alzheimer’s Connection
- Alzheimer’s is Just Another Form of Diabetes
- How Your Diet May Affect Your Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease – Time Magazine
- Eat Your Way to Dementia – New Scientist
- Alzheimer’s Association. 2012 Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures.
- American Psychological Association. Stress in America (2011).
- Alzheimer’s Association and National Alliance for Caregiving. (2004). Families care: Caregiving in the United States.
- Anzick MA, Weaver DA. ( 2001). Reducing Poverty among Elderly Women. ORES Working Paper Series No. 87, Social Security Administration, Office of Policy, Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics.
- Arno PS. “Economic Value of Informal Caregiving,” presented at the Care Coordination and the Caregiving Forum, Dept. of Veterans Affairs, NIH, Bethesda, MD, January 25-27, 2006.
- Marvardi M, Mattioli P, Spazzafumo L, et al. The Caregiver Burden Inventory in evaluating the burden of caregivers of elderly demented patients: results from a multicenter study. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2005. 17: 46-53.
- Ruskin DN, Masino SA. The nervous system and metabolic dysregulation: emerging evidence converges on ketogenic diet therapy. Front Neurosci. 2012. 6: 33.
- Discovering the True Cost of At Home Caregiving
- The risks of copper toxicity contributing to cognitive decline in the aging population and to Alzheimer’s disease.