The Middle East Alzheimer's problem
We’ve all been there. Frantically searching for our ‘lost’ keys, while friends affectionately referred to you as having a ‘senior moment’, but the realities of a deteriorating memory can develop into a very real issue. Alzheimer’s is a well-known, but little understood disease. The most common cause of dementia, it is a degenerative disease that affects the brain, most commonly among the elderly.
Named after the doctor who first discovered it – Alois Alzheimer – Alzheimer’s forms new structures in the brain known as plaques and tangles, which cause the connections between the nerve cells to breakdown, eventually leading to the death of the cells and the loss of brain tissue.
This dying off of these cells causes sufferers to struggle with their short-term memory, and in advanced stages, lead to problems with speech, disorientation and anti-social and behavioural issues. Due to the progressive nature of the disease, over time more and more of the brain becomes damaged, leading to more frequent and more severe symptoms – ultimately resulting in death.
The WHO expects to see a 125% increase in cases of Alzheimer’s in the Middle East by 2050.
Perhaps the most worrying thing about the disease is that it is by no means uncommon. There are currently thought to be 46 million people affected by dementia worldwide – with 35 million of those thought to have Alzheimer’s.
Rather worryingly, figures are expected to pass 100 million by 2050.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently called the disease a ‘global health challenge’ – and when you consider that a new case is discovered, on average, every 3.2 seconds – it is clear to see why.
Why are rates rising?
Unfortunately, the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is something that will come to us all – old age. The vast majority of those affected are 65 or over. In fact, the likelihood of developing the disease doubles every five years from age 65 onwards – eventually reaching a 50 per cent chance of developing Alzheimer’s by the age of 85.
However, age is only one factor. Everybody grows old, but not everybody gets Alzheimer’s.
As with most things health-related, our diet plays a part – a huge one in fact. Research recently published in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology concluded that “Alzheimer’s represents a form of diabetes that selectively involves the brain and has molecular and biochemical features that overlap with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.”
The paper frequently refers to Alzheimer’s as ‘Type 3 diabetes’, highlighting the fact that in the very same way Type 2 diabetes results from insulin resistance in the muscle, liver, and fat cells, Alzheimer’s is down, in part, to insulin resistance in the brain.
And of course the similarities don’t end there, both diseases share a common cause – our good old Western diet. Yes, those grains, sugars and processed foods that are on our plates all too often have proven links to both Alzheimer’s and memory loss in general.
Unsurprisingly, given that the brain uses 25 per cent of the body’s glucose supply, sugar is the main culprit. A recent study in the journal Neurology showed that low to medium levels of sugar can disrupt brain function, even in those with no history of dementia or diabetes. The research went on to claim that, in the long-term, sugar has the potential to shrink the brain’s hippocampus – a common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.
Other health factors
Diet, however, is only one piece of the puzzle (albeit a large one). Most scientists believe that Alzheimer’s results from a combination of both lifestyle and environmental factors that take their toll on the brain.
As with many illnesses, genetics plays its part. Those with high rates of Alzheimer’s within the family are said to have a 70 per cent higher risk of developing the disease themselves. There are other factors, too, including many of the common causes of cardiovascular disease, such as smoking, heavy metal toxicity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Finally, there is some evidence to suggest that those of us who remain as mentally and physically active as possible throughout our lives are at a much lower risk – hobbies such as reading, writing, learning a language, or playing an instrument are all thought to help with maintaining healthy brain function.
What can we do?
The WHO expects to see a 125 per cent increase in cases of Alzheimer’s in the Middle East by 2050, and there are clearly many contributing factors to this epidemic.
The impact of diet cannot be stressed enough — simply because it is the biggest factor, and one that is entirely in your control. Unnatural levels of blood sugar and insulin concentration are killing us, and we’d be wise to consider a serious plan for permanently changing our eating habits for the better.
Cognitive exercise can also play an important role in keeping your brain in good shape. ‘Brain fitness’ exercises such as learning a language can have a notable impact in positive ‘rewiring’ effect on the brain that may offer a very significant level of protection against dementia.
Given the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in society today, it is a disease that warrants a better understanding of. You will almost certainly have a friend or family member affected at some point in your life, and understanding what that person might be going through will give you some very important coping and support tools.
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Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.