Understanding Alzheimer’s

Posted on September 17, 2021

Understanding Alzheimer’s

One of the ways that we can take care of our brain is by learning more about it; how it behaves and its functions. Just like getting to know a date from opposite sides of a restaurant table. It seems strange to talk about the brain as an abstract, almost separate, part of us when in reality, it is us, but in truth this is often how we approach conversations about the brain. As an organ that is responsible for making our limbs move and reminding us to turn the oven off before we leave the house, it also controls our emotions and how we feel. So, when it comes to the development of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia it can start to feel as if this usually reliable and (some-what) organised part of us has started to rebel or let the side down. Leading us to blame rather than understand. Which, apart from highlighting where the problem is coming from, doesn’t really achieve much else.

We can start by questioning, ‘what is Alzheimer’s?’ and ‘how does it affect the brain?’ Firstly, it is important to iron-out the difference between Alzheimer’s and Dementia since the two are often misunderstood as being different words for the same thing. Put simply, Alzheimer’s is a specific disease that causes Dementia (accounting for 60-80% of cases), whereas Dementia is a general term for serious mental decline, causing problems with memory and regular processing. With Alzheimer’s, tissue associated with learning is first to be targeted and subsequently breaks down, which is why one of the most common early symptoms is an inability to learn new information. More specifically, Alzheimer’s shows up distinctly in the physical structure of the brain as ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’: the name given to abnormal protein structures found in the brains of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s (first discovered by Dr Alois Alzheimer in 1906). These obstructions in the brain are thought by some scientists to block pathways between brain cells, stopping communication and ultimately leading to their decay. The truth of their exact role is still a mystery.

One thing we do know is that they are not just a symptom of ageing.  In fact, memory problems in general are not a normal part of ageing. It is true that people tend to get Alzheimer’s when they are 65+ which tends to leave people with the misconception that it is caused by increased age rather than the health of the brain. There is no reason to expect that if you look after your body by eating a healthy balanced diet and regular exercise that this wouldn’t also reflect on the health of your brain. In fact, evidence suggests that changes to the brain happen as much as 10 years before the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s start to show themselves, so taking the early steps to prevent damage occurring can have a big impact later in life. Factors including quitting smoking, reducing the amount of alcohol you drink, regular physical exercise and actively engaging in mentally stimulating activities can have a beneficial effect.

The foods we eat also play a role in keeping the brain healthy and active. Be sure to include foods like oily fatty fish like salmon, herring, trout and sardines, which are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Plant based sources of omega-3 fatty acids include nuts and flaxseeds. About 60% of the brain is made of fat, of which half of that is fat, comprised of omega-3 fatty acids, being essential for the normal functioning of the brain. Coffee as we all know boosts alertness due to its caffeine content and antioxidants, when consumed in moderation can also help improve mood. Antioxidant rich foods like blueberries, goji berries, dark chocolate, green tea and vitamin C rich foods like oranges and peppers protect cells from oxidative stress and can protect the brain. Turmeric with its active compound curcumin have potent anti-inflammatory properties which have shown to help the brain. Pumpkin seeds are rich in the nutrients copper and magnesium which contribute to normal functioning of the nervous system and iron and zinc contributes to normal cognitive function.  Eggs are a rich source of B vitamins and choline which play a role in brain function and development.

Overall, what we can learn from this introspective look at the brain is that maintaining healthy practices as early as possible is one of the best ways we can look after all of ourselves and the organs we have that keep us going.