As our species continues to live longer, our elderly population grows exponentially year after year. While the population worldwide continues to age, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is predicted to grow with it. But why? Thus far, the cause seems to be unknown. Most of the studies believe it is due to environmental and genetic factors. Recent research paves the way for other emerging topics including preserving brain function and brain blood flow as strategies for approaching the inevitable process of age.
Alzheimer’s is an irreversible and progressive brain disorder with the most common symptom being memory loss. It is also known as the most common cause of dementia. As the disease progresses, cognitive function like thinking and reasoning as well as behavioral abilities and overall independence decline. The characteristic findings of Alzheimer’s are biomarkers called amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles found in and around the brain. It can destroy a life long before it passes and is extremely heartbreaking for families to endure.
Lifestyle Risk Factors
Many of the factors that put an aging individual at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s are lifestyle choices. Research has shown that things like smoking, diabetes, obesity, and vascular disease have been found to increase the risk. Something as simple as throwing out the pack of squares for good, or adding 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day can reduce that risk. Cognitive stimulating activities like reading or strategy games also show long term benefits for the brain and memory. An interesting correlation between vascular health, cholesterol, and Alzheimer’s Disease lays the groundwork for the possibilities of prevention.
How Alzheimer’s Changes the Brain
The pathophysiological changes that occur in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s Disease can lead us in a new direction for health care. As this disease progresses, the brain begins to breakdown by means of atrophy (or shrinking), inflammation, an increase in free radicals, and mitochondrial dysfunction. Free radicals are formed when there is a disruption in the balance between anti-oxidants and biological stress. This is why it is important to maintain a diet high in anti-oxidant rich foods. Plant-based foods like fruits and green cruciferous vegetables are a great place to start. That large stuffed crust pizza just isn’t cutting it in the fight against free radicals.
Cholesterol plays an important role in brain and nerve function. The brain contains 23% of all the cholesterol in the body. It is what makes up the phospholipid bilayer or membrane surrounding every cell in your body. It also makes up the protective covering known as the myelin sheath that surrounds all nerve and brain tissue. It is an essential component of nervous system health and therefor simply lowering total cholesterol is not a logical means of preventing disease processes that occur in the brain with Alzheimer’s. In fact, cholesterol in the blood cannot even reach the brain due to something called the blood brain barrier, and instead is made locally in the brain. The key lies in the defects of cholesterol metabolism. The goal instead should be put on maintaining a healthier ratio of cholesterol with higher levels of HDL (high-density lipoproteins) and lower levels of LDL (low-density). This can be done by replacing vegetable oils with coconut and olive oil, reducing carbs and increasing essential fats (ketogenic) in the diet, and regular exercise. A high-quality fish oil intake of about 1–2g of EPA/DHA a day has also been shown to not only benefit HDL levels, but promotes brain protection and regeneration by decreasing inflammation and oxidative stress in the CNS.
Brain Fluid Mechanics
As mentioned previously, atrophy and inflammation are hallmark findings in people with Alzheimer’s Disease. Recent evidence is shining a light on a decrease in blood flow and cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) in and out of the brain as a potential cause of brain atrophy in the elderly. Adequate blood flow into the brain is needed to supply it with oxygen and nutrients. CSF provides the brain and spinal cord with a liquid cushion during movement. It has also been linked to the brain’s immune system otherwise known as the glymphatic system. Too little CSF inside the skull and the brain stem sinks into the hole at the bottom of the skull, the foramen magnum, causing something called Arnold Chiari. Too much and something called hydrocephalus occurs. Chronic hydrocephalus causes edema and compression to the brain tissue resulting in the ventricles of the brain enlarging and an inflammatory reaction. A decrease in blood flow into the brain overtime causes chronic ischemia, (lack of oxygen) and may play a critical role in brain atrophy.
One of the most likely places for a blockage of CSF and blood flow to occur is where the vessels pass through the junction between the skull and the upper cervical spinal canal. Acquired shifts, congenital malformations, and degenerative conditions of that delicate bony passageway may affect necessary fluid dynamics in and out of the brain and lead to neurodegenerative changes that are also seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Seeking out a cranio-cervical junction specific chiropractor to identify the presence of shifts in this area and addressing it through precision structural corrections may be the missing link to preserving brain health and avoiding the tragedy that is Alzheimer’s disease.
-By Dr. Ernesto Fernandez