Diet may fend off symptoms of Alzheimer's

Sunday, November 2, 2003

While at least 60 drug and biotech companies are working on medicines to improve memory, a healthy lifestyle can slow the onset of Alzheimer's disease, according to a Washington University professor.

Dr. Anne Fagan, of the Department of Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Washington University School of Medicine, was the keynote speaker at the 15th annual Alzheimer's Association Research Update at Southeast Missouri State University on Saturday.

"Eating the green, leafy vegetables like your mother told you to is probably a good idea," Fagan said.

The nutrients found in those vegetables, folic acid and vitamins B-6 and B-12, can reduce the levels of an amino acid called homocysteine, which is associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer's.

Fish, vegetable oils and nuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are also thought to be beneficial in preventing Alzheimer's.

Other suggestions included lowering cholesterol. The use of statins, or cholesterol-lowering drugs, has been associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's.

The presentation helped Betty McClain, 73, of Cape Girardeau learn of the new drugs and their potential and confirmed her beliefs about Alzheimer's being hereditary. Latest research developments say family history is a definite risk factor.

Sudden appearance

Her husband of 14 years, Bill, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's seven years ago, and now she cares for her 79-year-old husband.

His symptoms of Alzheimer's appeared suddenly, such as when he forgot how to drive.

"He has a short attention span," Betty said. "He gets restless and will pace for two or three hours up and down the hallway for exercise."

But Betty, 73, still enjoys an active life that includes horseback riding.

"We get up and go," she said. "We go bowling. But having him around the clock is hard. I have a lot more energy to cope when I get a break."

For relief, Betty will watch television or try to get another to care for her husband.

Other definite risk factors are age, gene mutations and Down syndrome.

According to research, probable causes include previous head trauma; other possible causes are high cholesterol, smoking, estrogen deficiency and a history of depression. Aluminum and infection are unlikely risk factors.

Another risk factor is low education, so keeping the mind active may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

Suggestions for keeping the mind active were reading, playing cards or board games, doing crosswords and dancing.

Today, around 4.5 million Americans suffer from the disease, and the estimated annual cost of caring for them is $1 billion. By 2030, victims of Alzheimer's are expected to number as high as 7.7 million as baby boomers age.

As of Oct. 17, Namenda, generically known as memantine, was approved by the FDA. In a U.S. trial, participants with Alzheimer's who received memantine showed significantly less decline in thinking skills and ability to perform daily activities than those who took a placebo.

Other drugs currently in clinical trials include statins.

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