The whole world awaits a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The irony is that the worse the condition gets, the easier it becomes emotionally for the patient–and the more wrenching an experience for the caregivers. In fact, if you are a caregiver, please join a support group. Don’t tackle Alzheimer’s alone. Doctors generally acknowledge Alzheimer’s as hopeless, and the only approved drugs are marginally effective at best. In light of this bleak outlook, the integrative team at WholeHealth Chicago believes that we all need to be especially alert for anything new on the horizon.
We’re now recommending, for example, huperzine A, a compound derived from a rare moss native to the cold climate of China (where integrative medicine is standard operating procedure). It is proving to be remarkably effective against age-related memory loss–and without the side effects of powerful modern drugs.
Now let’s see what else we can suggest.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive degenerative disorder of the brain. In time it severely impairs memory and mental functioning, with devastating consequences for both patients and caregivers. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear very slowly at first. Patients, who are usually over age 65 (and more likely to be in their seventies or eighties), experience what can be mistaken for the usual forgetfulness associated with old age. Difficulty making decisions is another early symptom. As the disease progresses, however, memory loss accelerates and patients may forget how to perform very simple tasks, such as dressing and bathing. Increasingly disoriented, they tend to get lost in familiar places and fail to recognize friends and family. People with Alzheimer’s often undergo personality changes, becoming hostile, anxious or withdrawn, and may display inappropriate social behavior.
In its advanced stages, the disease produces severe language impairment, loss of bowel and bladder control, and mental deterioration so great that patients become completely dependent on caregivers 24 hours a day. Alzheimer’s patients die, on average, within 10 years of the onset of symptoms, usually from complications such as pneumonia or malnutrition.
It is estimated that Alzheimer’s affects about 6% of people over age 65, and 20% of those over age 85. The disease is neither curable nor preventable, and there are no diagnostic tests that specifically identify it. (A diagnosis is made on the basis of patient history and clinical examination. Brain scans and lab tests can help rule out other possible causes of memory loss and dementia.)
The prescription drugs tacrine and donepezil ease symptoms to a degree in some patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. Certain supplements, particularly ginkgo biloba, huperzine A and other antioxidants, may also help improve mental functioning in the early stages of the disease.
Because Alzheimer’s disease, especially in its later stages, takes such a heavy toll on caregivers, anyone responsible for the care of an Alzheimer’s patient should seek ways to ease the inevitable burden. Counseling, support groups, day-care services, visiting nurses and nursing homes are among the available options.
Increasing forgetfulness and inability to recall recent events
Difficulty making decisions and forming proper judgments
Growing disorientation resulting in a tendency to get lost near home or in other familiar places
Changes in temperament, characterized by anxiety, agitation, hostility, withdrawal, indifference to others, depression or displays of inappropriate social behavior
Rambling or repetitive speech, inability to name familiar objects, long searches for the right word and other language difficulties
Failure to recognize friends and family
Delusions, paranoia and unfounded accusations
Loss of bowel and bladder control
Inability to perform such basic tasks as bathing, dressing, eating or using the bathroom without assistance.
What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?
The cause of Alzheimer’s remains unknown. What is known is that the brain of Alzheimer’s patients suffers a severe loss of nerve cells, especially in those areas that control memory and thought processes. A deficiency in certain memory-enhancing brain chemicals is also associated with the disease.
Other factors that may play a role in memory loss and possibly in the development of Alzheimer’s include decreased blood flow in the brain, a series of small strokes, cardiovascular disease, serious head injury and slow-acting viruses. A family history of Alzheimer’s may increase an individual’s risk of developing the disease.
Treatment and Prevention
Although strides continue to be made in the treatment of Alzheimer’s symptoms, the disease cannot be cured or prevented and, after a certain point, its symptoms are irreversible. However, in the early stages of the disease, nutritional supplements may help reverse some mental impairment and perhaps even postpone the development of more severe symptoms.
Start taking supplements, singly or in combination, as soon as Alzheimer’s is even suspected. It’s safe to take the recommended supplements with the prescription Alzheimer’s drugs tacrine and donepezil, but consult your doctor before you do so. If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
The herb ginkgo biloba is a key supplement in the treatment of early Alzheimer’s symptoms. By increasing the blood supply to the brain, ginkgo biloba may help improve memory in some patients. The herb also seems to have antioxidant properties, which help keep nerve cells healthy.
A compound derived from Chinese club moss, huperzine A, has been shown in clinical studies to improve mental functioning and seems to complement the effect of the conventional medicine tacrine.
Vinpocetine, a substance derived from the periwinkle plant, has been shown in many studies to improve memory and mental functioning.
Other antioxidants that promote nerve-cell health include vitamins C and E, carotenoids and coenzyme Q10. You can often find a commercial preparation where all of these supplements are conveniently combined. Low levels of vitamin E, a potent antioxidant, have been consistently linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Also take a vitamin B complex and extra vitamin B6. Although not the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, low levels of B vitamins have occasionally been found in patients who have Alzheimer’s. Vitamin B12 and folate lower blood levels of homocysteine, elevated levels of which have been noted in Alzheimer’s patients.
Try borage or evening primrose oil and the herbs gotu kola and Siberian ginseng; these all may help improve memory in early Alzheimer’s patients by fostering better transmission of nerve impulses. In addition, gotu kola may reduce fatigue and depression, as well as stimulate the central nervous system.
The amino acid-like substances phosphatidylserine and acetyl-L-carnitine may achieve the same result by increasing levels of memory-enhancing brain chemicals.
If the Alzheimer’s patient is prone to episodes of agitation, you might consider kava, a natural and nonsedating tranquilizer, before trying potentially sedating drugs that might impair mental functioning even further.
Exercise regularly, although you’ll obviously have to supervise if the person becomes disoriented with the surroundings. Even if it’s only taking a short daily walk, exercise helps improve both mental and physical functioning.
Keep the mind stimulated by reading, doing memory exercises and playing games.
Try to stay as calm and relaxed as possible. This will help you concentrate and may even improve memory.
Seek outside help and advice. Alzheimer’s disease support groups and the Alzheimer Disease Foundation are good sources for information about caring for a person with this ailment.
Since some prescription drugs can cause mental confusion, especially in older people, speak with your doctor about this issue, and ask to have all medications periodically reviewed. Medications used to treat anxiety, depression, diabetes, ulcers or Parkinson’s disease are common culprits.
When to Call a Doctor
If you or a family member shows signs of increasing memory loss, get lost in a familiar place or undergo unexplained behavioral changes.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: I know this list looks formidable. And it’s a lot of pills to take every day, especially for someone with Alzheimer’s. But we do have evidence in the medical literature that certain nutritional supplements can slow and even reverse some deterioration of the disease. Since at this point in time, Alzheimer’s is considered incurable, these supplements are certainly worth trying.
How to Take the Supplements
I suggest initiating as much of this program as you can afford and staying on it indefinitely. Periodically ask your physician to do a mental-status evaluation to determine if the deterioration is slowing (or even reversing) and if the program is working to your expectations. None of these supplements will interfere with the prescription drugs currently available for Alzheimer’s disease.
These extra antioxidants, along with the energy enhancer coenzyme Q10, block the degeneration of the brain caused by altered oxygen molecules called free radicals.
Extra B complex vitamins and essential fatty acids (found in supplements such as borage and evening primrose oil) help to maintain the healthy structure and function of the nervous system. Low vitamin B12 levels can mask Alzheimer’s symptoms, so you might ask your doctor to measure your blood and make sure your levels of this important vitamin are on the high side.
Recent studies show that the mineral zinc is frequently low in Alzheimer’s patients, and that supplementation may be helpful. If you’re planning to take zinc for more than a month, be sure to add a small amount of copper as well (zinc can interfere with copper absorption).
The herb ginkgo biloba and the herbal extract huperzine A have both been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, especially when combined with the conventional drug tacrine. Although less well studied in Alzheimer’s patients, the supplement vinpocetine, derived from the periwinkle plant, also has been shown to enhance mental function.
The amino acidlike nutrients phosphatidylserine (PS) and acetyl-L-carnitine are expensive, but both have been shown to enhance memory function in Alzheimer’s patients and even in people who just demonstrate mild everyday forgetfulness. These are both safe and effective, but unfortunately a bit price-y.
The herbs gotu kola and Siberian ginseng may benefit Alzheimer’s patients by improving overall energy and level of alertness.
And finally, supplementation with NADH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), recently found effective in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), has also been found helpful with Alzheimer’s patients. All participants in a trial showed improved cognitive functioning and no side effects were noted.
For special consideration:
The gentle natural tranquilizing herb kava (250 mg 3 times a day) may be able to relieve agitation in an Alzheimer’s patient without having to resort to prescription tranquilizers, which may increase mental confusion. Don’t use kava in combination with prescription tranquilizers and sedatives.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD