Can you imagine how it’d feel to see a loved one disappearing in front of your eyes, just like sand trickles through the tiny gaps between your fingers, slowly and steadily.
This heart achingly dismal phenomenon transpires when a brain develops plaques, tangles and in due course shrinks. Everyone with a brain is at the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s like living in a world of complete strangers because your mind doesn’t remember anything when its hit by this oblivion’s curse i.e., Alzheimer’s.
When you lose your memory you lose everything, the whole essence of your existence just vanishes, poof! Likelihood of us stumbling upon Alzheimer’s during our lifetime is quite high, either by being inflicted by it or by being a caregiver for a loved one struck by it. Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging.
The greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 or older. Yet, Alzheimer’s is not just a disease of old age. People can develop it at a relatively young age, referred to as early onset Alzheimer’s. Every 4 seconds someone is diagnosed with this disease. Alzheimer’s doesn’t have to be our brain’s destiny if we’re lucky to live long enough! It has been there for over a century.
However, disappointedly the researchers have yet not been able to find its cure, but they’re determined to do so. Sure, it’s not very comforting to know that since a century people have been battling with this morbid disease with no antidote. Nevertheless, we can stand up for our older self in the present and take some preventive measures now!
How does Alzheimer’s affect the working of our brain?
A decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life is called dementia and Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. Alzheimer’s hinders with memory retention and other cognitive abilities. It accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases. Let’s get acquainted with the knowledge that our brain is made up of neurons (nerve cells), the building blocks of our nervous system.
There are about 100 billion neurons in a human brain. Clearly, we’ve got more than enough to work with! These neurons are responsible for transmission of information to other parts of the body. They communicate with each other at the point of connection called synapses, through the body’s chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. That’s how we think, feel, desire, see, hear and remember.
Basically, our brain cells work like a very well-oiled machine. However, accumulation of two abnormal structures called plaques and tangles are prime culprits in causing Alzheimer’s by damaging and killing nerve cells. Plaques are deposits of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid that builds up in the spaces between nerve cells. Tangles are twisted fibres of another protein called tau that builds up inside cells. These two disrupt the communication between and transfer of nutrients to the brain cells, leading to their starvation and eventually cell death.
Now this destructive duo of plaques and tangles, originates in the region of brain that is responsible for our memory, that is why loss of, or fuzzy memory is the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s. These proteins thereon, progress to other parts of the brain exhibiting different stages of the disease.
Moving towards the front of the brain they affect the ability of our logical thinking and then to the region that controls our emotions, resulting in erratic mood changes. Finally, causing paranoia and hallucination. And once they reach brain’s rear, they erase our deepest memories. Ultimately, the control centres of heartrate and breathing are overpowered as well leading to an individual’s death. Researchers are working on slowing the speed of progression of this destructive disease. One of those researches focuses on acetylcholine therapy. This therapy helps reduce the breakdown of acetylcholine, which is brain’s important chemical messenger and is decreased in Alzheimer’s patients due to the death of nerve cells that manufacture it. Another solution that scientists are looking into, is a vaccination, that’ll train body’s immune system to attack the formation of amyloid beta plaques in the brain. There are also certain researches focusing on relation of insulin resistance as well as estrogenic-based hormone therapy. Although, these options only entail preventative medicine not curative.
Building an Alzheimer Resistant Brain
Currently about 35-40 million people are living with some form of dementia and by 2030 this number is expected to go as high as 70 million. It is frightening for sure but instead of being afraid of it we must fight it. Diet and sleep cycle play a vital role to keep away this monster. It is because the way we live can influence the formation of amyloid beta plaques. Some of us develop these plaques with age and some of us through the genes from our parents.
Fortunately, for most of us our DNA alone doesn’t determine our tendency to get Alzheimer’s, even if we get the gene variant for the disease from both our parents. The dilemma that arises is that we can’t stop ourselves from aging or determine the genes that we inherit. So, how do we change our brain’s destiny? That’s where sleep plays a crucial role. Scientists say that slow wave deep sleep works as a power cleanser. Wherein, cerebrospinal fluid rinses through, clearing away the metabolic waste that accumulates at the synapses while we are awake.
Physical and mental agility goes a long way!
Some autopsy studies show that almost 80% of people with Alzheimer’s, also had cardiovascular disease in addition to high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol. So, let’s stay steer clear of smoking, trans as well as saturated fats and lead a hearty and healthy lifestyle. Regular aerobic exercises have shown to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s significantly by literally reducing the amyloid beta accumulation. Let’s say, you’re at the age where you’re at the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and haven’t taken any preventive measures or led a healthy lifestyle, you’ve relished all the yummy junk food and ran only when someone was chasing you. Even at this stage you can perform one more task to protect yourself from being trapped by Alzheimer’s! It has to do with your cognitive reserve. Since Alzheimer’s is all about synapses, we’ve about 100 trillion synapses and normally we gain or lose these synapses through a process called neuroplasticity. Every time we learn something new, we create and strengthen new neural connections, hence, new synapses. It’s this high cognitive reserve that results in more functional synapses. Therefore, those who’ve regularly been involved in high mentally stimulating activities or have had more formal years of education i.e., high degree of literacy; have a huge backup of these neural connections. They still have a way to detour the wreckage. This shows that both physical and mental agility is important to keep a disease like Alzheimer’s at bay. Pave fresh neural roads by learning something new.
Writer’s note: Despite of everything, if you still are detected with Alzheimer’s, remember that diagnosis is not the end of life. Even if your memory leaves you, keep living with love and joy because no one will ever be able to take those feelings away from you. And for all the caregivers/family members tending to the Alzheimer patients, hang in there! Because we have to remember their love for them when they no longer can.
The writer is an Entrepreneurial Biotechnologist with a strong passion for quality healthcare, patient advocacy & patient education. Email: [email protected]
Disclaimer: The information in the article should not be used as a substitute for medical advice, treatment or diagnosis.