While most Americans are aware of the importance of the health of their hearts and blood pressure, another vital part of the body is often ignored: the brain. According to a survey by the Alzheimer's Association, older Americans rank memory deterioration as their second greatest health worry, yet only half are doing anything to prevent it.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. Though no one knows what causes it, its progress is marked by a build-up of plaque that damages brain cells and slows cognitive connections. At 4.5 million, the number of people with Alzheimer's has more than doubled since 1980. Experts believe that, absent a medical breakthrough, the number will triple by 2050.

The good news is that every day, new information reveals that controllable factors like diet and exercise may make a big difference in whether or not someone develops dementia. Because of this, the Alzheimer's Association started an educational campaign to promote 10 ways to maintain brain health.

Since it turns out that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain, most of the tips are familiar, such as exercising regularly and not smoking. Another tip encourages people to turn off the TV and "exercise" their brains by reading, doing puzzles, or learning new skills. Increasingly, health professionals are encouraging people to eat low-fat diets for their brains. In fact, a new study shows that a diet high in saturated fats may hamper the brain's ability to fight the build-up of plaque associated with Alzheimer's.

Another study by the UCLA found that Alzheimer's patients have a lower- than-normal production of the enzyme, IDE, which breaks down the amyloid- beta peptides that create the destructive plaque; mice on a high-fat diet did not produce as much IDE as other mice. The study also established a link between insulin signaling in the brain and the production of IDE. This may explain why people with Type 2 diabetes, with its lower insulin production, have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's. This, at the same time, points to a possible treatment. "Since insulin's action in the brain increased IDE levels, it may be possible to prevent or even reverse Alzheimer's disease by boosting insulin activity," Dr. Greg Cole, who headed the study, told Reuters Health.

The UCLA study is just one of many connecting fat intake and brain deterioration. Research by the Medical University of South Carolina linked trans-fat to slower cognitive functions. Trans-fat, found in many processed foods, is liquid oil turned by a chemical process into longer-lasting solid fat. Rats on a trans-fat diet learned more slowly and made more errors in a water-filled maze than those on a soybean-oil diet. Their brains were also physically damaged in areas associated with learning and memory.

Some fats, on the other hand, are "brain lubricants," such as omega-3 fatty acids that occur in fish. Omega-3 is thought to suppress the inflammation of delicate brain cells, and research in the late 90s proved that its ingestion decreases the risk of cognitive decline. It may also help a common problem where brain cells stop signaling each other as people age.

Just this month, researchers at the University of Iowa made a breakthrough by preventing them from developing a hereditary brain disease. To that end, the scientists injected the mice with a genetic fragment that switched off the gene causing the disease.

Of course it will take some years before concrete and applicable treatments are on the table--especially with the laborious approval process currently used by the FDA--but the prospects are more than promising. In the meantime, don't forget to do the crossword puzzle in your newspaper every day.



"I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress."

--Ronald Reagan


Posted 12-13-2004 10:29 PM by Doug Casey
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