Although there’s no magic pill against Alzheimer’s disease at this moment, there are still some steps you can take to protect yourself.
The moment Donna Kaye hill became aware that her 80-year-old mother has started to show mental degradation was when she couldn’t make or receive any phone calls. When she called the phone company to inquire about the situation, “they told me she hadn’t paid her bill in three months.”
When some other evidence came into light regarding gaps in her memory, she went with her mother, Katie, at a memory clinic. After some tests, the geriatrician at the facility came to the conclusion that her mother is suffering from dementia and prescribed two prescription drugs and a supplement in the form of vitamin E.
Katie Hill took her medications and supplements on a regular basis, but none of that helped and she died four years later. As time passed by, and no improvement could be seen, her daughter started doubting the effectiveness of vitamins and the prescription medications.
“But if it doesn’t hurt, if there’s a chance it helps even a tiny bit, why not?” she thought. Now, at 62 years of age, Ms. Hill is a retiree in Danville, VA., and takes daily doses of fish oil capsules in the hopes of preventing the onset of the disease that took her mother away from her.
Her mother was in doubts on why the doctor recommended the supplement, as a great number of senior Americans are already taking them even without being told to do so by their doctors. The Food and Drug Administration projects that about 80% of seniors are using dietary supplements, in the hopes of warding off or treating Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
One month ago, the FDA started looking into this emerging supplements market by sending letters and/or advisories to 17 companies that are currently selling around 60 different supplements, such as Cogni-Flex and Mind Ignite.
The letters of warning were focused on the companies’ marketing, saying that they worked in the same way as Alzheimer’s drugs, “but naturally and without side effects.” There were even some that were marketed in a way that said they’re “clinically shown to help diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s.” In addition, some of the pills, oils, and capsules were touted to be able to treating various diseases like stroke or erectile dysfunction.
The claims these companies made, that they are for “the cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease” indicated that they are drugs, the FDA wrote. Because of that classification, and because FDA hasn’t done a review nor has approved them – they now must submit their applications for approval or halt marketing their claims. During the past four years, the FDA has acted on 40 products that had Alzheimer’s claims.
It is easy to understand why people have taken a liking to supplements. The ever-growing senior population that has longer lifespans results in more people that will develop dementia, but studies relating to populations in the U.S. and other Western countries have shown that it’s slowly decreasing.
Many people have first-handedly experienced the difficulties of dementia and would probably resort to anything to avoid getting it. Sadly, news about drugs and supplements don’t do much to make us feel optimistic about it.
Even though research into dementia is increasing, the literature and pharmaceutical trials were mostly done in order to inform people which substances don’t help prevent, treat, or slow down dementia.
Claims without scientific basis
There are many vitamins, antioxidants, and concoctions that were derived from animals and plants, and “we see plenty of ads on TV, but we have no evidence that any of these things are preventive,” said Dr. Steven DeKosky, a neurologist and deputy director of the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida.
Dr. DeKosky was the lead author of a federally funded Ginkgo biloba extract study that followed over 3,000 people during the period of seven years to check whether or now it had some beneficial dementia suppression properties, and the results showed it didn’t.
“No effects at all,” Dr. DeKosky said. “But look on the shelves. Many companies still sell Ginkgo — if there’s really any in there, because supplements don’t always have the contents they say they have.”
Additionally, Dr. DeKosky said that “some of these supplements are biologically active and can cause toxicity when you take other drugs.” However, supplements can have a high price as well.
But not only supplements and drugs can help reduce risks of dementia. A couple of prestigious panels after a process of study review, were able to recommend some other solutions.
A report with a more of a conservative view from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2017, offered their recommendations on the basis of several randomized large clinical studies.
The three main ones include: increased physical activity, blood pressure management for people suffering from hypertension during their adulthood, and last, but not least – mental training.
The latter recommendation doesn’t specifically mention online brain games, noted Dr. Kristine Yaffe, a neuropsychiatrist and epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. She also served at the panel.
“It’s really the concept of being mentally active,” she noted. “Find something you enjoy where you’re learning something new, challenging and stimulating your brain.”
Even though the newest evidence doesn’t clearly state which cognitive workouts are most effective, or how people should go about doing them, “they’re not expensive and they don’t cause side effects,” Dr. Yaffe added.
The second recommendation – blood pressure management got backed up by some new findings presented by the SPRINT Trial in January – a multisite study that halted early in 2015 after it was shown that intensive treatment of hypertension (a systolic blood pressure goal of less than 120, compared to the standard 140) can reduce cardiovascular-related issues and deaths.
The researchers’ study didn’t stop thought, as they continued it with 9,361 participants whose age averaged at 68 and had hypertension. Follow-ups were also conducted in order to do mental assessments.
They published the results of their study in JAMA, and their findings showed that the intensive treatment group had smaller risks of developing dementia than the group that received the standard treatment. It is worth noting, though, that the margin wasn’t very statistically significant. What intensive treatment did, however, was significantly reduce risks of mild mental deterioration – which is a common precursor to dementia.
“To me, it was one of the most exciting findings to come along in years,” said Dr. Yaffe in an editorial that was published along with the study, adding that the first large-scale trial revealed a strategy that could be used to prevent or delay age-related mental deterioration.
“The same things we recommend for heart health turn out to be important for cognition,” she said. “It’s a blossoming field.”
Another recommendation coming from the lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care is hypertension treatment for middle-aged people, accompanied by physical exercise, socializing and quitting smoking. They also advise people to be more conscious of their weight, diabetes, hearing loss, and depression. According to the commission’s approximations, all of these steps might delay or even prevent about a third of dementia cases.
Whenever Dr. Yaffe mentions dementia prevention, she makes sure to point out that people should take care of their sleep hygiene and advises everyone to make sure to prevent brain injuries.
While the advice is sound, it’s underwhelming, to say the least. There’s no magical cure, as we are already conscious enough that we should take care of both our physical and mental health.
Unfortunately, Dr. Yaffe said that “it’s not foolproof.” When it comes to dementia, “there’s a role for genetics. There’s a role for bad luck.”
“The concept is important. You can do something about this. You can lower your risk,” she added.
That’s one of the reasons why fish oil isn’t the way Donna Kaye Hill goes about in her ongoing battle to prevent dementia.
She uses medication to manage her blood pressure, constantly reads, and has joined a book club that she attends with her friends. She also takes a four to five miles walks five days a week with her Labrador that goes by the name of Annie.
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