Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease


Perspectives of the science and nutrition

by Susan Cable, RHN

Well, for a change this is one topic where I really can’t share a personal family experience, but I can share a working experience. In my much younger days, long before I had an interest or diploma in nutrition and long before the day of the personal support worker, I worked for a home health care company as a homemaker. I had a variety of clients consisting of patients with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and those in palliative care. Back then, the only job requirements were a valid driver’s license, empathy, and the ability to face very critical life and death situations. I had no special training or certificates, but I did have a heart that felt for the patients and their families. If I could do something as simple as prepare a meal, help with a bath, change a diaper and a bed or simply enjoy a cup of tea with an individual who thought I was someone from their past, then that made me feel good, knowing that I had made a difference in a person’s life, even if it was just for an hour.

Many of my clients suffered from some form of severe dementia, which now in the 21st century is coined Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). I have had the pleasure of enjoying tales of the past from many of my clients, but the one that stands out the most was with a lovely woman with whom I shared a cup of tea and scones, on a sunny afternoon on a hillside in England. She told me such glorious stories of her life and I was part of that time era which in her mind was at the present.This past era was so real to her, that I felt like I really was sharing that life experience (of the past) with her. It was like being in a time machine.This took place over 30 years ago, but it left an impact on my life and I still can visualize this very well kept, elderly lady, sipping tea amongst the delicate yellow flowers on an English hillside. It still amazes me how her sincere belief in mind made the scenario seem so real to me.

The individual with AD is often filled with wonderful stories of their past but struggle to remember what happened in their life in more recent times.This is because the nerve fibres in the brain’s memory centre have become tangled and new memories cannot be stored, but the old are in place and undamaged. Scientist believe that a form of plaque, similar to the plaque build up found in arteries, is deposited in the brain, causing damage, which may be the cause of these tangled nerve cells.

AD was first discovered in 1906 by the German neurologist, Alois Alzheimer. His studies unfolded symptoms of more than just memory loss and disorientation; they concluded that depression and hallucinations were also common occurrences with the disease, particularly in the later stages.

It is easy to shrug off the early symptoms of AD as simply too much on our plate (metaphorically speaking) or as society would have us think, just getting older. As a nutritionist, I know that aging does not have to mean becoming forgetful;but as a very busy business woman, grandmother of five and traveller, I do understand how too much on my plate means multiple yellow post it notes all over my fridge.

Early symptoms of AD

Memory loss, which affects normal, everyday functioning.
Challenges in planning or solving problems such as planning a family meal.
Difficulty completing tasks for example, driving to a familiar location.
Confusion with time or place such as, forgetting where you are or where you are going.
Visual problems may be a sign of AD.
Inability to follow a conversation, problems with vocabulary or writing.
Misplacing things, putting things in unusual places.
Poor judgement, for example being too generous with their money
Removing oneself from social activities and sports that were previously enjoyed.
Significant mood and personality changes.

I think it’s fair to say that we can all experience some of these symptoms at any given time, but that does not necessarily mean we are developing AD (visit Alzheimer Association www.alz.org for typical age related memory loss information). There are many disorders that also present with similar common symptoms, some of these being: effects of heart disease, brain tumour, hearing loss, heavy metal poisoning, hypothyroidism, bacterial and viral infections,vitamin and mineral deficiencies or toxicity and depression.

So as you can see, a firm diagnosis appears to be based on the ruling out of other disorders.

There has been much research done in the field of science and nutrition since 1906 in an attempt to discover the cause of AD. Unfortunately to this day, there is still no exact known cause for aging brain illnesses, but researchers are uniting in the area of nutrition. The effects society, particularly stress, environmental pollutants and in my opinion chemicals and preservatives in the foods we eat, all may play a huge role in what is called degenerative disease (“causing or showing a gradual deterioration in the structure of a body part with a consequent loss of the part’s ability to function,” Encarta Dictionary).

Some of the factors that are said to fall into this category are:
• Genetics — but statistics show that this plays a role mainly in cases of early onset AD with an immediate family history of AD and accounts for approximately 50 per cent of this category
• Poor nutrition — a diet of highly processed foods and void of the nutrients needed to maintain a healthy body.
• Poor digestion and the inability to rid the body of what it doesn’t need.
• Circulation problems (accounts for a strong immune system and the circulation of vital nutrients to the brain and other organs).
• Viruses.
• Accumulations of toxins in the brain. For example, aluminum deposits itself in the brain if the body isn’t able to get rid of it through sweating,urination,bowel movements.

Free radical damage — all the bad stuff that we eat and breathe that may damage our cells and causes disease.
• The big one — stress.

• Inflammation, due to all of the above.
So how do we combat this? Well, as I say in every column I write, “A whole, natural foods diet, rich in antioxidants and fibre.”
In this particular case I can’t stress enough the antioxidants.  Studies have shown that vitamins A, E and C along with the minerals selenium and zinc are key antioxidants which may help to prevent and/or reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. Other valuable nutrients are the B vitamins and essential fatty acids (EFA’s). Both of these are true “brain food” and should be a part of every individual’s diet starting from conception.The sooner we nourish our body, the better equipped we are to ward off disease.

As I stated above, stress plays a huge role in damaging the mind, body and spirit. As soon as stress occurs, whether it is physical, emotional or traumatic, a whole series of events start to take place in the body. Since most people in today’s society are over- stressed and under-nourished, the body cannot deal with the impact of the situation and this leads to degeneration of the cells, including the brain cells.

So whether you are looking at preventative measures or a diagnosed AD condition, take the nutritional steps to restoring not only your brain function but your body as a whole. All of your deep orange and red fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants along with onion, celery and garlic.Your leafy greens, the darker the better are high in the B vitamins including folic acid and choline, both essential for a healthy brain. Last, but certainly not least the EFA’s. These are found in high amounts in raw walnuts, almonds, nut and seed oils and butters and of course, cold water fish such as salmon and sardines.

Complementing your diet with these vital nutrients is essential for all aspects of good health. Supplements are also available, but being the foodie that I am, I always suggest the natural, whole food source first.

Whichever route you decide to take, don’t wait until the symptoms begin or get worse; start now with a delicious diet based on a variety of fresh, local and in season fruits and vegetables, whole grains as unprocessed as possible and a variety of lean animal protein and beans and legumes.

And remember, eat with the seasons. Fall represents low growing and root vegetables, many of which are red and orange in colour, such as beets, turnip, red potatoes and squash. These foods are warming and grounding and are a perfect addition to not only a healthy brain diet, but also a healthy body.

Relax, enjoy the colours of the season and thank Mother Nature for looking after our health. ■

Susan Cable is a holistic nutritionist, educator, competitive body builder and business owner. She is the senior academic advisor for the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, where she aids in the education of students worldwide in holistic nutrition. She works and lives in Hastings, Ontario


Need More Information?

If you are caring for a friend or family member with AD or would like more information regarding this, check out these resources.

Alzheimer’s: A Caregivers Guide and Sourcebook
By Howard Gruetzner

Optimum Nutrition for the Mind
By Patrick Holford

Other resources:

Alzheimer’s Society of Canada: www.alzheimer.ca
Alzheimer’s Association www.alz.org