On the Menu: Nutrients’ role in preventing Alzheimer’s

Nutritional supplementation may help reduce the incidence of dementia, but more research is needed

Alzheimer’s disease: A recent Behaviour & Attitudes survey among a representative sample of 700 Irish adults (aged 50 years and over) revealed that a third of respondents believed a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease would be significantly more difficult to cope with than one of heart disease. Photograph: Getty Images

Alzheimer’s disease: A recent Behaviour & Attitudes survey among a representative sample of 700 Irish adults (aged 50 years and over) revealed that a third of respondents believed a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease would be significantly more difficult to cope with than one of heart disease. Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Mar 25, 2014, 01:00

With an ageing world population and improvements in healthcare systems, more people will be diagnosed with chronic disease, including dementia.

This global epidemic can no longer be ignored and neglected, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), a worldwide federation of Alzheimer associations. Currently, 44 million people worldwide live with dementia.

However, the future forecast is startling. It is estimated that by 2050 this figure will rise to 135 million. With one new case occurring every four seconds, dementia should be considered a public health priority in all countries.

Typically chronic and progressive by nature, dementia alters our ability to think, recall and behave. Performing everyday activities becomes challenging and often people face their worst fear – they lose their independence. This is not a normal part of ageing.


Brain diseases
Dementia is caused by a number of different brain diseases, one of which is Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent Behaviour & Attitudes survey among a representative sample of 700 Irish adults (aged 50 years and over) revealed that a third of respondents believed a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease would be significantly more difficult to cope with than one of heart disease.

The survey confirmed strong levels of fear, stigma and uncertainty associated with the disease.

Nearly half of respondents believed that they would have to give up their careers if they were diagnosed with the early symptoms of the disease.

The majority said they would wait a number of months to see a GP if they noticed they were suffering from memory loss.

Getting older and having a family history of Alzheimer’s disease increase our risk of developing the disease.

It is also thought that modifiable lifestyle-related factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, obesity and type 2 diabetes in midlife can increase our risk too.


Main characteristics
Although the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease is complex, there are three main characteristics of the condition – beta amyloid plaque formation, neurofibrillary tangles and the loss of brain synapses.

Amyloid plaques are found in the spaces between nerve cells and are a normal part of ageing. However, in Alzheimer’s disease they develop in cognitive areas and affect brain function.

Neurons in brain cells have an internal support structure partly made up of microtubules. A protein called tau helps stabilise microtubules.

In Alzheimer’s disease, tau changes, causing microtubules to collapse, and tau proteins clump together to form neurofibrillary tangles which interfere with brain function.

Lastly, the brain consists of billions of specialised neurones which communicate with each other through synapses. In Alzheimer’s disease, these synapses are damaged and lost, impairing brain function.

This loss of synapses is one of the key features of Alzheimer’s disease in the early stages and is associated with memory loss.

Evidence shows that people in the early stages of the disease have a reduced capacity to make use of certain nutrients such as uridine monophosphate (UMP), choline, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which are needed to replenish synapses lost due to the disease.

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