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My mom’s mother died of Alzheimer’s disease. As a kid, I loved spending time with her. She was the perfect—and perfectly doting—grandmother. She’d want to take me to toy stores, but, geeky me, I just wanted to go to the library. When we’d get back to the house, my arms filled with borrowed books, she’d let me sit way back on her big couch and read and draw pictures. Then she’d bring me blueberry muffins she made with a big mechanical mixer that took up half the kitchen counter.

Later in life, my grandma started to lose her mind. By then, I was in medical school, but my newfound knowledge was useless. She had turned. My previously sweet and stately grandmother now threw things at people. She cursed. Her caretaker showed me the teeth marks on her arm where my once kind, loving grandma had bitten her.

That’s the horror of brain disease. Unlike a problem with your foot or your back or even another vital organ, brain disease can attack your self. Alzheimer’s disease, which kills nearly 85,000 Americans each year, is one of the most physically and emotionally burdensome diseases, for both sufferers and caregivers. Unlike stroke, which can kill instantly and without any warning, Alzheimer’s involves a slower, more subtle decline over months or years. Instead of cholesterol-filled plaques in your arteries, plaques made of a substance called amyloid develop in the brain tissue itself, associated with the loss of memory and, eventually, loss of life.

Despite the billions of dollars spent on research, there is still neither a cure nor an effective treatment for the disease, which invariably progresses to death. In short, Alzheimer’s is reaching a state of crisis— emotionally, economically, and even scientifically.

The good news, as a senior scientist at the Center for Alzheimer’s Research entitled a review article, is that “Alzheimer’s Disease Is Incurable but Preventable.” Diet and lifestyle changes could potentially prevent millions of cases a year. How? There is an emerging consensus that “what is good for our hearts is also good for our heads,” because clogging of the arteries inside of the brain with atherosclerotic plaque is thought to play a pivotal role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. It is not surprising, then, that the dietary centerpiece of the 2014 “Dietary and Lifestyle Guidelines for the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease,” published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, was: “Vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), fruits, and whole grains should replace meats and dairy products as primary staples of the diet.”

We generally think of atherosclerosis as a condition of the heart, but a substantial body of evidence strongly associates atherosclerotic arteries with Alzheimer’s disease. Autopsies have shown repeatedly that Alzheimer’s patients tend to have significantly more atherosclerotic plaque buildup and narrowing of the arteries within the brain, and the clogging of the arteries inside, and leading to, the brain with cholesterol-filled plaque can drastically reduce the amount of blood—and therefore oxygen—your brain receives. In light of such findings, some experts have even suggested that Alzheimer’s be reclassified as a vascular disorder.

A study of three hundred Alzheimer’s patients found that treating vascular risk factors, such as high cholesterol and blood pressure, may even slow the progression of the disease but not stop it. That’s why prevention is the key, and it’s never too early to start eating healthier. Dietary decisions you make now may directly influence your health much later in life, including the health of your brain.

 

Image Credit: Trifonenko / Thinkstock. This image has been modified.

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