Drop the Big Mac, don’t order the extra fries and stay away from super-sized and super-sugared sodas. As diet busting and insidious as they are, there may be an even worse evil here. Currently, some researchers are hypothesizing that our lifestyles of saturated fats, too many sweets and overlarge portions of food may be one of the reasons why we’re seeing an explosion of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer's disease is an increasing threat to our health. Currently the 6th leading cause of death in this country, it is a progressive degenerative disease resulting in the loss of memory, thinking and language skills as well as behavioral changes.
Call it Type 3 brain diabetes. That’s the term coined by Dr. Suzanne DeLaMonte, a Brown Medical School neuropathologist who autopsied the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and discovered they showed signs of insulin resistance — an early indicator of diabetes.
This discovery, supported by further research, led to the theory that what we eat, which is impacting the exponential increase of Type 2 diabetes epidemic, may also playing a role in the increasing rate of Alzheimer’s — resulting in a third form of diabetes.
“Insulin disappears early and dramatically in Alzheimer’s disease. In the most advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, insulin receptors were nearly 80 percent lower than in a normal brain,” DeLaMonte says in the December 15, 2005 issue of the National Review of Medicine.
“There's a link,” agrees Dr. Mark Simaga, neurologist and president of the medical staff at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart noting both that patients with Alzheimer’s have a brain insulin resistance and those with diabetes are much more likely to develop Alzheimer's.
“Cells in the blood vessels in the brain are insulin dependent, so their metabolism and other functions could be altered by diabetes which could potentially alter blood flow to the brain,” says Michael S. LaPointe Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology and Associate Director Pre-Health Professions at Indiana University Northwest. “Also metabolites from adipose cells or other cells, or other hormonal changes secondary to diabetes could alter brain function and potentially lead to Alzheimer’s disease.”
According to Dr. Marvin Zelkowitz, a board-certified neurologist on staff at Ingalls Memorial Hospital, high sugar and fat are detrimental for good brain functioning.
“Rats who get fed high fat diets lose their memory more quickly,” says Zelkowitz. “High fat also means less learning. Fats are also a challenging correlativity in that your pancreas has to work all the time, putting a lot of stress on it. High sugar content in diets means that the pancreas has to put out more insulin, another stressor on the pancreas.”
The stress impairs the body’s ability to move sugar through the metabolism in the appropriate way causing brain insulin resistance (BIR) which then impairs neuron receptors. BIR is an early and common feature of Alzheimer’s.
At this point, says Dr. Tim Ames, Medical Director of Healthlinc, the Valparaiso Federally Qualified Community Health Center, Whether Type 3 brain diabetes is still a hypothesis.
“But it fits in with the narrative we have going that if we all eat healthy and exercise, we’ll be healthier,” says Ames noting that diabetes causes damage to small blood vessels which are a cause of multi-infarct dementia (MID) – a condition similar to Alzheimer’s in terms of memory loss. “Physical exercise and mental stimulation are important. The more rest you give your brain, the worse it does. Research also shows that it’s important to avoid social isolation. The baby boomers have to get out in front of this because Alzheimer’s is going to be a huge problem.”
Indeed, according to a presentation by Simaga at St. Mary’s Medical Center Alzheimer’s Symposium currently every 68 seconds someone develops the disease. By mid-century, this will likely be every 33 seconds.
"The lower our blood sugar levels, the longer we live,” says Zelkowitz. “Doing crossword puzzles doesn’t probably help because you’re recalling what you already know. It’s the new experiences which keep the brain active. It’s like a rat running through a maze – you’re learning new things. Crossword puzzles are okay if you’re sitting there with a dictionary.”
The best exercise we have for the brain is human interaction, says Simaga. “It’s staying active, having friends – doing everything that promotes vascular health."