A friend of mine has a mother who lives in a retirement community. At almost 80, she’s one of the lucky ones – she’s still mentally and physically able to live in an independent living apartment. The others in the next building aren’t quite as fortunate. Suffering from dementia, they’re in a carefully monitored area where it’s easy to enter the two-story building – but exiting is an entirely different story. As in the Eagles’ 1976 classic song Hotel California, “you can check out, but you can never leave.”
What is dementia?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia refers to a decline in mental ability that is severe enough to impact daily living. Most often characterized by memory loss, dementia symptoms can also include communication and language impairments, a decline in thinking skills, and difficulty in concentrating and paying attention.
Physiologically, dementia is caused by damage to brain cells that render them unable to effectively communicate with each other. When this vital communication link breaks down, thinking – as well as feelings and behavior – can be adversely affected. Dementia tends to be very anatomically specific, affecting particular areas of the brain which, in turn, impact specific bodily and mental functions. In the case of Alzheimer’s’ disease, the brain cells in the hippocampus are attacked first – making memory loss one of the initial symptoms detected.
How widespread is this debilitating disease?
According to the 2016 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts & Figures, more prevalent than we might think. Every 66 seconds, someone in the US develops Alzheimer’s, resulting in more than five million Americans living with the disease at any time. The sixth leading cause of death, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia ultimately claim the lives of one in three seniors.
What else can cause dementia?
In addition to the damage to brain cells previously mentioned, dementia can also be triggered by less-than-healthy lifestyle behaviors. A poor diet comprised of fattening foods, lack of regular physical activity, excess alcohol or caffeine consumption, inadequate vitamin intake, and environmental toxins might all play a part in increasing an individual’s propensity for getting this progressive disease.
Once diagnosed, is there anything that can be done to turn the tide?
To date, traditional medicine has shown to have its limits. There currently is no cure for dementia unless it is a so called treatable dementia like B12 deficiency or hypothyroid related dementia. Commonly prescribed medications like Aricept and Namenda have been largely proven to be ineffective to treat dementia with unknown etiology. But the main problem may be even deeper, in that most of the time we are inclined to treat symptoms – not determine the root causes of those medical issues.
This is where a functional medicine approach could offer a different perspective. We look at the underlying factors that contribute to a particular ailment and address the root cause of dementia – and often, by closely examining those physical abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, and unhealthy habits, can offer solutions to support treatment and promote long-term well-being.
Here are some ways I suggest to my patients to help lower their risk of dementia – and to improve the lives of those already suffering with the disease:
Consume a heart-healthy diet. If your digestive system is in proper balance, think raw – like our ancestors way back when – and eat a caveman-inspired Paleo menu of fresh fruits and vegetables, omega-3-rich fatty fish, and lean protein from organic sources.
Get moving. Regular physical activity may help lower the risk of some forms of dementia, as exercise may directly increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Strive for at least 30 days of aerobic activity several times a week, such as walking, running, hiking or swimming – and consider strength training and stretching for extra cardiovascular and flexibility benefits.
Think outside the traditional box. For example, a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease a few years ago suggests that two compounds found in cinnamon, cinnamaldehyde and eipcatechin might give you support you need to help fight Alzheimer’s by preventing the disease-related neurofibrillary tangles found in the brain. Bonus: Cinnamon may also give you support to help manage blood glucose, which could be an added benefit for those with type 2 diabetes.
Clean up your lifestyle. Overindulgence in alcohol and caffeine, along with smoking, are among the lifestyle-related culprits that can boost your risk of dementia. The more negative habits you limit or eliminate altogether, the better your chances for mental clarity when you’re older. And while you’re at it, avoid environmental toxins such as air pollution, mercury, electromagnetic smog, and other pollutants.
Bump up your B vitamins. An article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that high-dose vitamin B treatment may reduce cerebral atrophy in the areas of the brain most prone to Alzheimer’s. B complex, folic acid (.8 mg), vitamin B1, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 (.5 mg) may give you support you need to help stave off cognitive decline.
Ecobeautica Wellness Center, a medical day spa in Brooklyn, NY, offers a wide variety of B vitamin supplements through their online store, including B-Supreme, Vitamin B-6 Liquid, Super Liquid Folate, and Vitamin B12. Omegavail essential fatty acids and Probiotic Synergy Spheres are also popular options for overall health and well-being.