Editorial: Turning the Corner
Up until now, it was nothing but bad news. Alzheimer’s hits nearly half of us by age 85, and prevalence will increase sharply over the next few decades. The associated medical costs will be crippling. The personal cost is incalculable.
But that scenario is changing. Researchers have begun to identify ways to reduce the risk. In the same way that large population studies showed striking patterns in heart disease—smoking, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and diabetes increase risk, while vegetarian diets, exercise, and other factors cut the risk—strategies for preventing brain disorders have begun to emerge, as well. People who generally avoid saturated and trans fats—skipping the cheese, bacon, and doughnuts—have had remarkably low rates of Alzheimer’s disease in research studies. Certain vitamins, such as vitamin E and B-vitamins, play key roles in brain health. Metals, such as iron, copper, and perhaps aluminum, have also entered the discussion, with the possibility that getting into better mineral balance will protect us further. And just as physical exercise is good for the heart, the waistline, and every other part of your body, it appears to be good for the brain, too.
I wish we had this information long ago. As I saw my grandparents—and then my own father—succumb to the effects of dementia, I would have given anything to spare them this awful fate. But we assumed that it was simply a matter of aging or genes, and that there was nothing we could do.
While it is not likely that we will be able to prevent all cases of dementia, the possibility of having new tools to prevent the assault on the brain gives us a basis for action. It is important to invest in epidemiological studies, as well as clinical trials, to see how powerful preventive strategies can be. At the same time, it is also important for individuals and families to use what we know now about prevention. It is time to rearrange our plates, lace up our sneakers, and protect what is most important.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM