LOS ANGELES — Alzheimer’s disease affects as many as 5 million Americans. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and there is no cure.
Yet a very small study out of UCLA is offering a glimmer of hope for those with what is often a hopeless diagnosis. Nine out of the 10 patients involved in the study, who were in various stages of dementia, say their symptoms were reversed after they participated in a rigorous program. The program included things like optimizing Vitamin D levels in the blood, using DHA supplements to bridge broken connections in the brain, optimizing gut health, and strategic fasting to normalize insulin levels.
A few months after starting the extreme program, patients in the study, aged 55 to 75, noticed their cognition had either improved or returned to normal. Only one patient, a 60 year-old female who was in the late-stages of dementia when she began the program, continued to decline.
The results, published this fall in the journal Aging, support the idea that addressing the many contributing factors of Alzheimer’s disease as a group, rather than one at a time, could potentially reverse the disease’s early progression, said study author Dr. Dale Bredesen, director of the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA.
Those factors include 36 potential deficiencies, imbalances and sources of inflammation.
“Each one of these things contributes a small piece of the puzzle,” said Bredesen. “It’s like a roof with 36 holes in it. Some people have a big hole in, say, exercise, and maybe a smaller hole in another area.”
Based on those deficiencies, the following seven suggestions are now being given to anyone interested in launching a preemptive fight against Alzheimer’s:
1. Improve your gastrointestinal health
Gastrointestinal health has been linked with brain health. Incorporating fermented foods, probiotics and prebiotics into your diet could reduce your risk of dementia. Bredesen recommends having your doctor test for a “leaky” GI tract, as that can also cause inflammation.
2. Fast strategically
Allow three hours between dinner and bedtime, and 12 hours between dinner and breakfast. The idea behind this type of fasting, says Bredesen, is that the body begins a process during the break that may help to destroy amyloid-beta, a problematic protein that builds up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
3. Strengthen synapses
Supplements like DHA and citicoline may help strengthen the connections between your brain’s nerve cells, says Bredesen.
4. Reduce heavy metal toxicity
If you consume tuna frequently, check your mercury level, since exposure to heavy metals has been associated with dementia. Patients in Dr. Dale Bredesen’s pilot study, “Reversal of cognitive decline: A novel therapeutic program,” also ditched aluminum-containing deodorants — but studies are far from conclusive about any harm conferred by anti-perspirants.
5. Cut out inflammatory Foods
Overeating grains, starchy vegetables and sugar can generate harmful inflammation in the body and brain. Patients in Bredesen’s pilot study who responded most quickly cut out simple carbohydrates.
6. Get more sleep
Seven to eight hours a night is ideal for the body to restore itself. Patients in Bredesen’s study who had trouble staying asleep got help from melatonin supplements or tryptophan, a chemical you likely know is found in turkey.
7. Balance your hormones
Scientists know the stress hormone cortisol can damage the hippocampus, a memory center in the brain. Bredesen says hormone replacement therapy may help women who have an imbalance that affects their brain function.
The 10 patients in the pilot study underwent a battery of tests, including having their blood drawn and brains scanned, and had neuropsychological evaluations. Bredesen said that most of the study participants had between 10 and 24 problems that needed correcting.
The effect of focusing on so many targets at once runs counter to what Bredesen said is a prevailing — and flawed — notion of identifying single targets to treat a disease caused by many factors.
“Drug companies tend to come up with a really good patch for one hole,” said Bredesen, founder and CEO of the Buck Institute. “It’s not a surprise they don’t work.”
But anecdotal studies like this one are far from generalizable, and larger studies must be done to prove whether the program will work for more than the scant number of people in this study.
These study results should be interpreted with a lot of caution, primarily because of the small study group — and because the participants had a range of diagnoses, resulting in different interventions, James Hendrix, director of Global Science Initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association, explained in an email statement.
“Outside of a supervised research setting, no one should adopt these specific ideas to try to improve their, or a loved one’s memory and thinking,” he said. “We simply don’t know what the effect would be.”
While this sort of life overhaul might seem dizzying, some study patients said it actually ended up simplifying their lives — especially those who called cutting out processed and other inflammatory foods was freeing.
“Before this protocol, the notion was you were going to die with this disease,” said study patient Julie Gee, who started a website to provide support and hope for others in the same genetic situation. “There was a lack of specificity about what to do. Now we have this prevention protocol.”
Hendrix with the Alzheimer’s Association said one sound element of Bredesen’s study, given the complexity of Alzheimer’s disease, is its focus on addressing multiple risk factors. He cites as an example a two-year, 1,200-person clinical trial out of Finland, the results of which were presented earlier this year at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.
Among study participants engaging in nutritional changes, physical activity, brain training, social activities and management of risk factors for heart problems, cognitive performance improved.
Bredesen stresses that identifying the culprit for early Alzheimer’s symptoms must be based on a patient’s specific deficits and imbalances.
He said he will continue testing his protocol on early-stage patients — including members of Gee’s APOE-4 online group — to find the ideal stage of cognitive decline to introduce this program and how long improvement can be sustained.
“We are now looking at what is causing illness in order to make a big impact on it,” said Bredesen, who added that many elements of his program could be implemented in asymptomatic people as a prevention strategy.
“If you’re not deteriorating, it’s a good idea to do what our moms told us to do: Exercise, get sleep, keep stress down and don’t eat junk food.”
He hopes that normalizing early stage Alzheimer’s patients cognitively might provide a better platform on which to test future drug-based therapies.
“One ‘silver bullet’ drug doesn’t work with 36 holes in the roof,” said Bredesen. “The argument is maybe you need to patch some of those holes before trying another drug.”