By Dr. Kabran Chapek, Naturopathic Physician and Primary Care Provider at the Amen Clinic in Bellevue, WA
Georgia was a sweet woman in her late 60’s who had retired 3 years previously; she was a typical type A person. She had always been organized. She even kept track of her grandchildren’s birthdays and events in the community. However, for over the past 10-15 years, Georgia’s memory didn’t feel as sharp as it once was, and she chalked it up to normal aging.
Then, five years ago, she began misplacing her car keys frequently; she began to forget birthdays and events, and her family noticed that she was having difficulty coming up with certain words when she was talking. Georgia was terrified. She had heard that once you have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, there’s nothing that could be done; it felt like a death sentence. Her biggest fear was being a burden on her family.
After looking at Georgia’s brain using SPECT imaging and cognition tests, it was clear that she had MCI or mild cognitive impairment — an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. SPECT imaging is a type of functional brain scan that can detect changes in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient 5-9 years before symptoms occur. The scan showed that she had decreased activity in her temporal lobes, where memories are stored, and parietal lobes, responsible for orientation and visual spatial skills.
However, Georgia got more than just bad news that day. In addition to telling her that she had MCI, I was also able to tell Georgia that there is hope for her. The goal of treatment for Alzheimer’s is not to cure the condition, but rather to slow it’s steady progression to such a level that she outlives it and dies from some other cause. The goal is to improve her symptoms to the point where her memory is better, so she can regain some of that sharpness and start thinking clearly again.
But is this really possible? I thought that Alzheimer’s disease was an untreatable condition that can’t be prevented?
The story in the past has been that Alzheimer’s disease has no treatment. Today that simply is not true. Using the philosophy of looking for the cause, by optimizing diet, exercise, sleep, and weight, we have been able to improve many who had a dire prognosis. Now research backs up this strategy, and has proven that significant recovery from early stages of Alzheimer’s is possible and even predictable, if the causes can be identified.
A neurologist and researcher, Dr. Dale Bredeson has provided us with an explanation as to why the single drug treatment has not been found. His article, “Reversal of cognitive decline: A novel therapeutic program” was published in September 2014, jointly by the Buck Institute for Research on Aging (Novato, CA) and the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research, Department of Neurology, UCLA. Alzheimer’s disease is not one thing. Each Alzheimer’s researcher across the globe has found a piece of the puzzle. Inflammation is important, blood sugar and insulin resistance is a piece, genetics including the APOE4 allele is key. Some have an imbalance of zinc and copper levels in the blood. Zinc is needed for cognition and production of dopamine and approximately 200 other biochemical processes in the body. Elevated copper levels are associated with more inflammation and irritation to the nerve cell.
These findings were published online, available through the US National Library of Medicine, in the article titled “Copper phenotype in Alzheimer’s disease: dissecting the pathway” from 2013, and in the journal Neurobiology of Aging (Vol 35, sup 2, Sept. 2014) in an article titled “Low-copper diet as a preventive strategy for Alzheimer's disease.” Additionally, a percentage of Alzheimer’s patients, on autopsy, have mycotoxin or fungus in their brains. (See “Different Brain Regions are Infected with Fungi in Alzheimer’s Disease in the Journal Nature, from October 2015.)
The key is identifying specific causes of Alzheimer’s and understanding that there are many common pathways resulting in one diagnosis.
Georgia was incredibly motivated after seeing what her brain looked like. Having had her Alzheimer’s diagnosis confirmed, she was resolved to make real changes. Her plan was complicated, and it meant making many changes to her lifestyle and diet that she didn’t want to make — such as spending large amounts of time exercising and preparing healthy food.
However, she had the support of her family and husband who were willing to make the changes along with her. She started her on a low carbohydrate, gluten free diet that was higher in green leafy vegetables, healthy fats like fish oil, olives and olive oil, and walnuts. She agreed to begin exercising 30-45min daily by walking outside with her husband. She agreed to take supplements that have been shown to help slow plaque formation and decrease brain inflammation such as curcumin. (See “PPARgamma agonist curcumin reduces the amyloid-beta-stimulated inflammatory responses in primary astrocytes in The Journal of Alzheimer’s in 2010.)
The hardest thing for her to change was her diet, but once she put in the effort and changed how she ate, Georgia began to notice a big change: she started to feel better. Cutting out sugar was the toughest, however when she did, she noticed significant improvements in her cognition and her mood. During the first month of taking supplements, changing her diet, and exercising Georgia didn’t notice much of a difference. Only because she was committed and because of her family’s incredible support she kept going and she liked seeing the weight come off that she had been trying to lose.
Then about halfway into the second month, her family members started to notice that she was speaking more fluidly. Georgia wasn’t losing her keys, and she wasn’t losing her way when driving anymore. That was a year ago, and I don’t know how long she will go with this improvement in her health. Based on the today’s science, we know there is no reason she shouldn’t be able to continue to show improvement, because as we know, the brain is plastic — it can remodel and grow new neurons.
In the last 5-10 years we have seen an explosion in new developments in the field of brain research. new studies have already clearly shown that reversing the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease is possible. However, that in no way means that the problem Alzheimer’s disease presents can be easily solved with a pill. If you want to at least try to prevent or even reverse this problem, it means making significant changes to diet and lifestyle, as well as a financial investment into healthier food and supplements.
Compare the cost of this kind of urgent switch into a healthier lifestyle to the alternative cost of assisted living care — $420,000 over 10 years for an early stage diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, not to mention the cost of care for a private room in a nursing home averages $870,000 over 10 years (Genworth Financial Cost of care survey 2014). I am so grateful to be able to give those who receive this punch-in-the-gut diagnosis options and hope. Perhaps someday Alzheimer’s will be thought of more akin to prostate cancer, and with new treatments, hopefully one day those afflicted will die with Alzheimer’s disease, not of it. Since 1 in 3 people will have Alzheimer’s disease by age 80 this is increasingly a priority.
By making significant changes to diet, exercise, targeted supplementation and thorough testing it is possible to reverse the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s, a previously untreatable illness.
Credit Dr. Kabran Chapek is a Naturopathic Physician and Primary Care Provider, practicing at the Amen Clinic in Bellevue. Using the Amen Method, Dr. Chapek guides patients toward effective natural solutions such and nutritional supplements, brain training, diet modifications, and physical exercise, but can also discern when higher-level interventions such as medication are necessary.