Alzheimer’s disease has no known cause and no known cure. However, that does not mean we can do nothing to prevent or treat the disease. The greatest risk for Alzheimer’s disease is age. We all age, and most of us hope to age gracefully and in good health. We can maintain a good weight, eat foods that are heart healthy (everything that is heart healthy is brain healthy too), and keep our bodies moving. Reducing stress and having social connections are good for a sound mind. Keeping actively involved in learning creates new brain cells, making it more resilient to disease.
I recently attended Dennis Selkoe’s update on Alzheimer’s research. He was very enthusiastic about a research study in its 3rd trial stage that may lead to a possible cure for the disease. You probably remember how vaccines work; researchers gave study participants a small dose of beta-amyloid protein, just as we get a small dose of smallpox when vaccinated against that disease. The body generally builds up antibodies against whatever is injected and gives protection against getting the disease. In that research trial, a few participants had swelling of the brain and the study was stopped. However, it was discovered that those who had a strong reaction to the vaccine progressed in Alzheimer’s much slower and the few who died from other causes (no one died from the vaccine), showed on autopsy very few of the plaques and tangles which are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. Recently, researchers have engineered a synthetic beta-amyloid protein and they are optimistic that it will show the promise that the first vaccine did.
The medications of Aricept, Razadyne, Exelon and Namenda have been helpful in some people to seemingly slow down the disease. It doesn’t slow the changes in the brain but it helps the healthy brain cells work better. This improves function in some patients.
Other treatments are less known but very effective. Nancy Emerson Lombardo of the Boston University Alzheimer’s Research team has helped develop a brain healthy diet. Omega fish oils, nuts like walnuts and almonds, as well as certain spices are found to be beneficial to brain function.
Lynn Lazarus Serper has developed another treatment for Alzheimer’s patients: retraining the brain to remember. The Serper Method is a series of workbooks set up to retrain the brain in language and calculations. A Serper coach works with a family to set up a schedule of sessions each day with the person with Alzheimer’s. I have personally seen people regain lost skills in language. In addition, the socialization of the lessons aids in brain health. When we are happily engaged with others, we feel healthier.
In a study begun in 1987 by Mary Mittleman and her group at the New York University School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center, caregivers were educated in the disease and supported throughout the caregiving experience. It was found that those who received education and support were able to continue home based caregiving for up to 2 years longer, avoiding nursing home placement. Today coaches go to the home to teach about the changes Alzheimer’s and other dementias bring and provide approaches to the changes that ease caregiving and empower the person with dementia to stay involved in life. The approaches are built on the habilitation model developed by Paul Raia and Joanne Koenig-Coste of the Massachusetts Alzheimer’s Association. Rather than focus on the label of dementia, the caregiver is encouraged to relate to the person who is still there. The caregiver learns to speak differently and respond differently in light of the brain changes. I have personally coached some 1400 families and know it works. Caregiver stress is reduced because the family member is calmer and more engaged, and the caregiver has tools to manage the changes in function and behavior.
So the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s doesn’t have to be catastrophic. There is treatment. There is hope for medical intervention. For further information, visit www.alz.org. Research opportunities and support groups are listed and each has a helpline to answer questions.