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Alzheimer's Disease: There is Hope!

by Hans R. Larsen, MSc ChE

Hans LarsenHave you or someone you care about been given a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease? Don't accept it as a fact without some very careful checking. A prominent Canadian psychiatrist estimates that as many as 40% of all Alzheimer's diagnoses are wrong(1). This is particularly tragic in cases where the symptoms of dementia (gradual loss of intellectual functioning) are due, not to Alzheimer's disease, but to a vitamin-B12 deficiency, a drug reaction, hypothyroidism, or cerebrovascular disease(1,2,3). All of these latter conditions are reversible.

A vitamin-B12 deficiency can be treated with injections of the vitamin if caught in time. However, if left untreated the neurological damage caused by the deficiency becomes permanent(4,5). Some researchers believe that a vitamin B-12 deficiency and Alzheimer's disease are closely linked and that a deficiency can actually lead to the disease(6).

Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia and occurs worldwide. About four million Americans now suffer from it(7). The disease is rare in people younger than 40 years of age but its prevalence grows rapidly between the ages of 65 and 85. It is estimated that almost half of all people over 85 years are victims(3,7). AD is an insidious disease that is usually fatal within 10 years of onset(2,4). Its victims are frequently unaware that they have it and the initial suspicions are often raised by relatives or friends. The first sign is usually the loss of short term memory, then follows difficulties in time perception, communication, reading and writing and eventually in using common household objects and in caring for oneself. Midway through the progression AD patients tend to lose the ability to recognize people and eventually become totally helpless. Anxiety, depression, wandering, and aggressive behaviour are common conditions seen in the progression of AD(2,3).

AD is difficult to diagnose correctly and the diagnosis can only be made with certainty through an autopsy. The brain tissue of Alzheimer's victims contains characteristic neurofibrillary tangles and deposits of amyloid plaque. It is believed that the neurofibrillary tangles and the plaque deposits are somehow connected with the death of brain neurons and the subsequent development of dementia(2,3). Although there is no consensus as to the ultimate cause of AD medical research has uncovered a number of significant risk factors.

It is estimated that about 20% of all cases of AD has an important genetic component(3). There is, however, no question that environmental risk factors are of prime importance in determining who develops AD and who does not.

Epidemiologic studies have shown that Alzheimer's patients have a higher level of aluminum in their brain than do healthy people(1,2,8). Particularly high levels have been found in the beta-amyloid deposits which are so characteristic of the disease. Aluminum is known to be highly toxic to brain neurons and recent research has shown that it can cause amyloid fibrils to aggregate into structures resembling neurofibrillary tangles(9,10). Canadian studies have found a direct correlation between the aluminum content of drinking water and the incidence of AD(11,12). Although some medical doctors still question the aluminum link there seems to be growing consensus that aluminum is somehow involved, if not in the initiation of the disease, then at least in accelerating its progression(2,10).

The level of mercury in the brain of AD patients is significantly elevated and it is now accepted that chronic low level mercury poisoning may be a significant factor in the development of AD. The level of mercury in the brain has been found to be proportional to the number of amalgam fillings in the teeth(1,2).

Free radical reactions are believed to be directly involved in the development of AD(2,13-16). Researchers at the University of South Florida have found that beta-amyloid, in an interaction with superoxide radicals, constricts and damages the lining of the tiny blood vessels which supply the brain. The researchers believe that this process ultimately leads to neurodegenerative disease, specifically AD(16). Other researchers suggest that free radicals destroy brain neurons directly(17). Free radical reactions can be suppressed by antioxidants such as superoxide dismutase and vitamin-E(15,16,18).

Exposure to high levels of electromagnetic radiation has been linked to the development of AD as have severe head injuries and a family history of AD or Parkinson's disease(2,19,20).

Vitamin deficiencies have been implicated in the development of AD(1). A vitamin B-12 deficiency is particularly serious as it can mimic the symptoms of AD and may even progress to AD itself(6). One recent study found that 40% of elderly Americans suffers from a vitamin B-12 deficiency(21,22). People who have had surgery for stomach ulcers are particularly prone to a vitamin B-12 deficiency(5). Lack of vitamins A, E, and beta-carotene has also been linked to the development of AD. British researchers found that AD patients admitted to a London hospital had only half the vitamin E level in their blood as did healthy, matched controls. The patients' beta-carotene levels were four times lower than that of the controls(17).

A low level of education and attainment has been linked to AD as has a paucity of ideas and low linguistic ability(2,23-25). Some researchers postulate that brains which have greater intellectual capacity are better able to tolerate neuron death without developing AD(24,25).

It is tempting to speculate that vigorous exercise of the brain, particularly in the early years, may be effective in preventing AD. However, recent research has discovered many less speculative measures that anyone concerned about developing AD can easily take:

  • Avoid exposure to aluminum as much as possible. Aluminum is found in drinking water, processed cheese, baking powder, antacids (Di-Gel, Maalox, Gelusil, Mylanta, and Rolaids), buffered aspirin (Bufferin), antidiarrheal preparations (Donnagel, Kaopectate and Rheaban), anti-perspirants, foods cooked in aluminum pots and coffe made in aluminum-containing percolators(8,26). Aluminum cans and aluminum-coated wax containers can also transfer significant amounts of aluminum to the beverages contained in them(8). Aluminum in drinking water is common and hard to avoid; however, silicic acid prevents it from entering the blood stream(27,28).
  • Avoid exposure to mercury. Do not accept amalgam fillings and have existing ones removed if they appear to be causing problems(1). Selenium is an effective antidote to mercury and a daily intake of up to 200 micrograms is safe and effective(29,30).
  • Avoid prolonged exposure to electromagnetic fields. Be particularly wary of sewing machines, electric blankets, microwave ovens, computer monitors, and clock radios and answering machines placed close to the bed(19,20,31).
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and ensure an adequate intake of antioxidants and vitamins, particularly the B vitamins and folic acid. Vitamin B-12 should be taken in the form of injections or as sublingual tablets as it is not easily absorbable(32).
  • Consider supplementing with Bio-Strath. This plasmolysed herbal yeast preparation (Saccharomyces cerevisia) has been manufactured in Switzerland for decades and clinical trials have recently established that it prevents and, in some cases, reverses many age-related conditions and disorders. Bio-Strath is particularly effective in improving short term memory, but also improves circulation and boosts the immune system(33).
  • Some very recent studies have shown that women taking estrogen (Premarin) are less likely to develop AD and that certain NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) may also have a protective effect. However, these findings should be treated with caution and need to be confirmed in clinical trials(7,34,35).

Conventional medical wisdom has it that there is no cure for AD and no effective means of slowing its progress. Fortunately, this has not prevented medical researchers and alternative medicine practitioners from discovering several ways of halting or at least slowing the progression of AD. NOTE: The treatments described in the following should not be undertaken except on the advice of your health care professional.

The first and absolutely crucial step in the fight against AD is to ensure that the diagnosis is correct. Insist that your doctor take all the necessary steps to rule out other causes of dementia. To spend the rest of your life in a nursing home as a vegetable because a vitamin B-12 deficiency was misdiagnosed would indeed be a cruel twist of fate.

It also makes sense to follow the suggestions given for preventing AD with an increased intake of antioxidants and vitamins as prescribed by your health care provider. Removal of amalgam fillings at this point can also bring about dramatic improvements(1,36). Amalgam fillings should always be removed by a dentist specially trained to do so - otherwise the condition may worsen.

British scientists believe that sage oil may be effective in the treatment of AD. They found that sage oil inhibits the action of acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down acetylcholine. An abnormally low acetylcholine level in the brain is a key feature of AD. It is interesting that the 17th-century herbalist, John Gerard, said about sage: "Sage helpeth a weake braine or memory and restoreth them being decayed in a short time"(37).

The herbal supplement Bio-Strath has been found highly effective in the treatment of early AD symptoms such as memory loss and mental confusion. Recent clinical trials carried out in Germany showed that 59% of the AD patients involved saw significant improvement in their condition after three months of Bio-Strath supplementation (2 teaspoons of the syrup 3 times daily). In another 41% the progression of the disease was halted and in no cases did the condition worsen among the treated patients. In contrast, 31% of the patients in the placebo group had a significant worsening of their symptoms over the test period(38).

Ginkgo biloba is the most prescribed medicine in Germany and is effective in correcting conditions of cerebral insufficiency (including memory loss) and intermittent claudication(1,39,40).

Homeopathic treatment of AD is an important option. The remedy alumina was discovered by the founder of homeopathy, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, in 1829. Dr. Hahnemann found it highly effective in treating "Great weakness or loss of memory" and in cases where "Consciousness of personal identity is confused"(41,42).

Homeopathy is based on the principle that a substance which in relatively large amounts will cause a disease will, when given in infinitesimally small (homeopathic) amounts, cure that same disease. It is ironic that homeopaths knew over 150 years ago that homeopathic concentrations of aluminum oxide would cure symptoms of dementia while we are just now realizing that much larger amounts of aluminum may actually cause these symptoms.

Alzheimer's disease is a cruel, debilitating and demeaning disease which can turn many a period of hoped for "golden years" into a living hell. Research is constantly uncovering new facets of the disease and preventive measures and promising new therapies are being developed which will ultimately halt its relentless progress. There is hope!

My favourite Supplements

  1. The Burton Goldberg Group. Alternative Medicine - The Definitive Guide. Future Medicine Publishing Inc., Puyallup, WA, 1993, pp. 521-27
  2. Terry, Robert D., et al., editors. Alzheimer Disease. Raven Press, New York, NY, 1994
  3. Isselbacher, Kurt J., et al., editors. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, 13th edition, 1994, pp. 2270-72
  4. Stein, Jay H., Editor-in-Chief. Internal Medicine. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, MA, 3rd edition, 1990, p. 1088 and pp. 1945-46
  5. Sumner, Anne E., et al. Elevated methylmalonic acid and total homocysteine levels show high prevalence of vitamin B-12 deficiency after gastric surgery. Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 124, No. 5, March 1, 1996, pp. 469-76
  6. McCaddon, A. and Kelly, C.L. Familial Alzheimer's disease and vitamin B-12 deficiency. Age and Ageing, Vol. 23, July 1994, pp. 334-37
  7. Marx, Jean. Searching for drugs that combat Alzheimer's. Science, Vol. 273, July 5, 1996, pp. 50-53
  8. Balch, James F. and Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Avery Publishing Group Inc., Garden City Park, NY, 1990, pp. 88-90
  9. Bolla, Karen I., et al. Neurocognitive effects of aluminum. Archives of Neurology, Vol. 49, October 1992, pp. 1021-26
  10. Exley, Christopher and Walton, Judie R. Amyloid, aluminium and the aetiology of Alzheimers's disease. Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. 164, February 19, 1996, pp. 252-53 and March 18, 1996, pp. 382-83
  11. Is aluminium a dementing ion? The Lancet, Vol. 339, March 21, 1992, pp. 713-14
  12. Crapper McLachlan, Donald R. Would decreased aluminum ingestion reduce the incidence of Alzheimer's disease? Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 147, No. 6, September 15, 1992, pp. 846-47
  13. Halliwell, Barry. Free radicals and antioxidants: a personal view. Nutrition Reviews, Vol. 52, No. 8, Pt. 1, August 1994, pp. 253-65
  14. Jenner, P. Oxidative damage in neurodegenerative disease. The Lancet, Vol. 344, September 17, 1994, pp. 796-98
  15. Gurwitz, David. Beta-amyloid vasoactivity in Alzheimer's disease. The Lancet, Vol. 347, May 25, 1996, p. 1492
  16. Thomas, Tom, et al. Beta-amyloid-mediated vasoactivity and vascular endothelial damage. Nature, Vol. 380, March 14, 1996, pp. 168-71
  17. Zaman, Z., et al. Plasma concentrations of vitamins A and E and carotenoids in Alzheimer's disease. Age and Ageing, Vol. 21, March 1992, pp. 91-94
  18. Stamler, Jonathan S. A radical vascular connection. Nature, Vol. 380, March 14, 1996, pp. 108-11
  19. Edwards, Rob. Leak links power lines to cancer. New Scientist, October 7, 1995, p. 4
  20. Sobel, Eugene, et al. Occupations with exposure to electromagnetic fields: a possible risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 142, No. 5, September 1, 1995, pp. 515-24
  21. Lindenbaum, John, et al. Prevalence of cobalamin deficiency in the Framingham elderly population. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 60, July 1994, pp. 2-11
  22. Allen, Lindsay H. and Casterline, Jennifer. Vitamin B-12 deficiency in elderly individuals: diagnosis and requirements. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 60, July 1994, pp. 12-14
  23. Stern, Yaakov, et al. Influence of education and occupation on the incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Journal of the American Medical Assocation, Vol. 271, No. 13, April 6, 1994, pp. 1004-10
  24. Evans, J. Grimley. From plaque to placement; a model for Alzhemimer's disease. Age and Ageing, Vol. 21, 1992, pp. 77-80
  25. Snowdon, David A., et al. Linguistic ability in early life and cognitive function and Alzheimer's disease in late life. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 275, No. 7, February 21, 1996, pp. 528-32
  26. Gault, M. Henry, et al. Would decreased aluminum ingestion reduce the incidence of Alzheimer's disease? Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 147, No. 6, September 15, 1992, pp. 845-46
  27. Edwardson, J.A., et al. Effect of silicon on gastrointestinal absorption of aluminium. The Lancet, Vol. 342, July 24, 1993, pp. 211-12
  28. Birchall, J.D. Dissolved silica and bioavailability of aluminium. The Lancet, Vol. 342, July 31, 1993, p. 299
  29. Goyer, Robert A. Nutrition and metal toxity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 61, No. 3, March 1995, pp. 646S-650S
  30. Oldfield, J.E. Some implications of selenium for human health. Nutrition Today, July/August 1991, pp. 6-11
  31. Perry, Tekla S. Today's view of magnetic fields. IEEE Spectrum, December 1994, pp. 14-23
  32. Mindell, Earl. Vitamin Bible. Warner Books Inc., NY, 1991, pp. 35-37
  33. Pelka, Rainer B., et al. Pre-geriatric study on Bio-Strath. Notabene Medici, Nr. 3, 1990, pp. 122-25 and Nr. 4, 1990, pp. 196-201. Translated from German
  34. Schnabel, Jim. Alzheimer's disease: arthritis of the brain? New Scientist, June 19, 1993, pp. 22-26
  35. Gray, Charlotte. Implications of increase in number of patients with Alzheimer's disease staggering, MPs told. Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 150, No. 12, June 15, 1994, pp. 2027-28
  36. Hoffer, Abram. Hoffer's Laws of Natural Nutrition. Quarry Press, Kingston, ON, 1996, pp. 198-202
  37. Itzhaki, Jane. When sage may be the wisest remedy. New Scientist, October 14, 1995, p. 10
  38. Pelka, Rainer B. and Leuchtgens, Heinz. Pre-Alzheimer-Study: Action of a herbal yeast preparation (Bio-Strath) in a randomised double-blind trial. Ars Medici, Vol. 85, Nr. 1, 1995. Translated from German
  39. Garattini, Silvio and Garattini, Livio. Pharmaceutical prescriptions in four European countries. The Lancet, Vol. 342, November 13, 1993, pp. 1191-92
  40. Kleijnen, Jos and Knipschild, Paul. Ginkgo biloba. The Lancet, Vol. 340, November 7, 1992, pp. 1136-39
  41. Lockie, Andrew and Geddes, Nicola. The Complete Guide to Homeopathy. Reader's Digest Association (Canada) Ltd., Westmount, PQ, 1995, p. 115
  42. Hering, C. The Guiding Symptoms of our Materia Medica. Pratap Medical Publishers, New Delhi, India

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