Perhaps one of the scariest diseases we can suffer from is Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia and accounts for 60-80% of the disorder. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s include memory loss, problems with behavior, and issues with cognitive thinking. Typically symptoms of the disease worsen and become more severe over time. So what causes this disease? Is there something that can be done to prevent it? We’ll discuss all this and more below.
What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?
We know what happens once Alzheimer’s sets in, the patient suffers from memory and other cognitive loss, but how does it reach that point in the first place? Picture the brain as an aerial view of the world. There are billions of lights peppered across the globe, these are the nerve cells, or neurons, of the brain. There are over 100 billion of these in a brain. Each one of those lights, or neurons, have a special job, whether it be making food, collecting trash, or creating energy (or in the brain’s case, thinking, communicating, remembering, etc.). The brain cells work like small factories, accepting an input, generating energy, constructing an output, and getting rid of waste. The small brain factories all communicate with one another as well, creating a cohesive network of getting stuff done. Alzheimer’s causes some part of these little brain factories to function improperly, resulting in backups and malfunctions in other brain factories until much of the brain has deteriorated and little of the brain’s cognitive abilities are functioning properly.
Scientists believe that this phenomenon is caused by two abnormal structures in the brain, called plaques and tangles. Plaques are a build-up (just like the plaque on your teeth) of beta-amyloid, a protein fragment that nestles its way into the spaces between nerve cells, your little brain factories. Tangles are twisted fibers of the protein tao that settle into the nerve cells themselves. While research is not concrete, experts believe that these protein structures actually block communication between the nerve cells, severing cells from the communication they need in order to perform processes to survive, resulting in damaged nerve cells to the point of destruction.
Is there something that can be done to prevent suffering from Alzheimer’s?
Now comes the age-old question, how do you prevent it? Alzheimer’s has been shrouded in mystery since the beginning of its discovery. Scientists have been unsure what causes the build-up of beta-amyloid, or what introduces tao into the nerve cells. Recently, however, science has had a breakthrough on the topic.
In a study performed with mice, scientists discovered that common compounds found in standard “Western” diets may promote the increased production of plaque build-ups of the protein beta-amyloid. Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) were added to the food of a population of mice to determine if the compound had any effect on the degradation or plaque build-up in the nerve cells of mice. AGEs are present in small amounts throughout the body, but they can also be introduced to the body by eating a variety of foods, particularly animal products that are prepared at high heat. These foods include fried, baked, boiled, or grilled meats and sterilized or pasteurized dairy products. When accounted for over the average consumer’s lifetime, we ingest a huge amount of these toxins.
So what happened to the mice? Mice who were fed foods high in AGE developed more problems with memory and movement than those who were fed food items with very low traces of AGE. So does this study prove that humans who eat foods high in AGE are more prone to being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in old age? Not necessarily.
The only thing this study proves at this point is that foods high in AGE are bad for mice’s brains. There was a small study performed after the mouse results were gathered in which a small group of elderly humans were tested. Within the small group, those with higher AGE levels in their blood tended to show a more dramatic dip in mental acuity over a period of time. Much more work on the subject needs to be done in order to draw any conclusions.
Though nothing has been concretely proven, it is not too early to cut back on foods high in AGE for general health, as well as potential long-term brain health. In the event that the mouse study proves to have similar results for humans, you will be ahead of the curve.