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If you’re over 50, chances are you’ve begun to notice some memory loss. Even in perfectly healthy adults with exceedingly active brains, the hippocampus–a part of the brain important to the formation of memories–begins to atrophy around the age of 55. As this happens, no doubt you begin to wonder, with anxiety and fear, whether the memory loss is part of the natural aging process, or whether you are proceeding inexorably toward getting the dreaded disease of Alzheimer’s.
It could be either, and it is important to be able to discern which it is, and to make this discernment as early as possible. The determination is difficult, however, for a very precise reason: the location in the brain of conscious memory is the same part of the brain that gets depleted in Alzheimer’s. And, of course, it is this reason as well that Alzheimer’s is as debilitating as it is, for the loved ones as well as the person who suffers from the affliction.
Yet, the normal aging process does not need to be diminished in its brain functionality. We know that human beings can live to 120 because some have–not all have, not even most have, but some have, and that tells us what is possible. Similarly, we know that the aging brain is still capable of genius and sublime creativity–not because all people over 70 function smartly, but because some do. Winston Churchill functioned robustly well into his older years. Anton Bruckner was still composing his lush symphonies well into his 80s. Still-alive past presidents have done well: Jimmy Carter is in his 80s and still vigorous. George Burns performed into his 90s. George H.W. Bush jumped out of an airplane at the age of 80, as did Irena Rutenberg, a friend of mine.
All parts of every system in the human organism sustain injury over time, including the brain. Yet, a healthy organism retains the ability to affect repair processes such that normal functioning is not impeded. However, when the normal injuries in the brain accumulate beyond critical thresholds, repair may cease to happen, and cognition then becomes disrupted. Alzheimer’s is a distinct and ever-deteriorating malignant process, far beyond ordinary aging cellular damage. The brain has lost its ability to make new neuronal connections. The brain is in a dying process as even old connections are lost.
The geography of the disease is the reason why the effects of the disease become so frighteningly apparent. It is the temporal lobe in the brain that allows us conscious recollection. The temporal lobe allows us to search for the name of the movie with Ralph Fiennes where he falls in love with another man’s wife, and where they do perhaps the most sensuous dance ever witnessed on film (The English Patient); or, to find the noun that describes that thing that I walk on that overlooks my living room (a balcony). Verbal circumlocution is the first step that we take when our memory begins to falter. It is the temporal lobe, too, that is the part of the brain that gets depleted when Alzheimer’s sets in. Here, deep within the brain, a conflict is being played out between the strength of conscious memory competing with the power of the encroaching disease.
We have a good, though probably not perfect, understanding of the physiological/biochemical factors in Alzheimer’s. Most researchers agree that the progressive decline in function occurs with a concomitant abnormal accumulation within the brain of a specific protein called amyloid. This initiates an inflammatory response which can then become chronic. The leading culprits causing the inflammation are brain excitotoxins; these are found in MSG, aspartame, fluoride, aluminum, and heavy metals. Each of these excite brain and nerve cells to the point of injury and destruction, resulting in a lethal spiral downward that leads to eventual cell death.
Current medical treatment for Alzheimer’s is costly and difficult. One drug used specifically for Alzheimer’s is Enbrel. It must be injected directly into the spine by a neurologist. The cost is between $10,000 and $20,000 a year.
There is now, however, sufficient recent research in the field of natural medicine on both memory loss from aging as well as memory loss from Alzheimer’s that we may be able to begin to conceptualize memory loss as a reversible condition.
Niacinamide, a form of B3, has been known to be useful in reversing memory loss for over 60 years. Niacinamide therapy was used clinically, with good effect in the 1940s by William Kaufman, Ph.D, M.D., who wrote two well-regarded and well-researched books on the nutrient. Although there hasn’t been any double-blind human research yet, the results of animal research confirm Kaufman’s original clinical findings. Kim N. Green, lead researcher of a recent study concluded: “We evaluated the efficacy of nicotinamide… in… mice, and found that it restored cognitive deficits associated with [Alzheimer’s disease].” (Nov. 5, 2008; The Journal of Neuroscience)
It is thought that niacinamide works by clearing “tangles” of a protein known as tau in brain cells. In Alzheimer’s disease, this protein becomes poisonous and contributes to dangerous clogging inside brain cells. The therapeutic effect of niacinamide is further associated with an increase in “microtubules.” These microtubules are like intra-cellular highways carrying information inside brain cells. In Alzheimer’s, these information highways have broken down. Niacimimide has the effect of building a wider, more stable information highway.
Kaufman’s recommended dose is 1,000 milligrams taken three times a day. Frequency during the course of the day matters, as it keeps the material feeding the brain on a constant basis. It turns out that this dose is the human equivalent of the amount given to Dr. Green’s mice.
Another issue in Alzheimer’s is that certain brain cells have difficulty metabolizing glucose, the brain’s principal source of energy. Without fuel, neurons begin to die. But researchers have identified an alternative energy source for brain cells – a particular kind of fat known as ketones. Ketones are a high-energy fuel converted from medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) in the liver, ultimately finding their way to the brain and giving it vital nourishment. In the first few weeks of life, ketones provide about 25 percent of the energy newborn babies need to survive.
Dr. Mary Newport is a woman who was on a mission. She was highly motivated to find an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s as her husband, Steve, was suffering from the disease. She had hoped that he would be put on a clinical trial with a medication that used MCT oil. But her husband’s condition was deemed too advanced to participate in the clinical trial. Dr. Newport raced to do her own research, and was surprised to discover that non-hydrogenated coconut oil contains the most concentrated food source for MCTs. She put Steve on a high dosage of coconut oil that she bought from her local health food store, and by the fifth day, she saw, and he felt, tremendous improvement. Dr. Newport chronicles her research and experience at her blog.
Finally, there is just good old-fashioned walking. It makes sense that if we can find a way to expand the hippocampus, then we can find a way to keep a part of the brain active that retains memories. In a study just published on Jan. 31 in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers observed the effects on the hippocampus of walking versus other less aerobic exercises (among them, yoga and resistance training). A year later, brain scans of both groups showed that the hippocampus had increased in volume an average of 2 percent in the walkers; yet, in the non-walkers, the hippocampus declined by 1.4 percent. This level of decline in size is normal in older adults; but this level of increase is quite remarkable. While both groups showed improvement on a test of spatial memory, the walkers improved more.
So, take your niacinamide supplements a few times a day, and right after you take your next power walk, indulge in some delicious brain-protective coconut oil.