We pour billions of dollars into medical research on specific diseases each and every year. But, sometimes, despite all of that time and all of that money, we still don’t find a cure. That’s what has happened with Alzheimer’s disease. So why aren’t we talking more about treatment and prevention?
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease leads a patient down a path of cognitive decline, and eventually, to death. It affects 5.7 million Americans and is the 6th leading cause of death in the country. Despite countless studies by some of the largest firms in the world, years of research, and several FDA-approved drugs being developed, we are still in the discovery phase with the disease.
The Alzheimer’s Association states that “the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s is increasing age.” Individuals are at a higher risk of developing the disease after 40. A deeper understanding of Alzheimer’s places us all in a better position to handle what many presume to be inescapable.
From the point of diagnosis, the patient and their family are forced to come to terms with the fact that a lonely, dark end is inevitable.
But, there is good news. It’s called “Integrative Medicine” and it’s all about treatment and prevention.
We have found ourselves in the midst of learning the intricacies of brain health. The research that has led us to the recent developments in neuroscience is now influencing the clinical practice of medicine.
Decades ago, psychiatrists learned to diagnose conditions based on just a few basic factors, which excluded biological causes that may contribute in various ways. Professionals did not consider genetics, dietary habits, or any other individual risk factors when reaching a diagnosis.
Treatment and prevention have also become easier to understand thanks to the countless studies and research groups over the years. The results from these panels and trials led us to the discovery of effective uses of lithium for Alzheimer’s patients and other ways to prevent the development and progression of the disease.
Newer discoveries within the past 30 years, such as genetic code mapping and more dependable neuroscience research, have given us a better understanding of hereditary predispositions to diseases, the effects nutrition has on brain health and function, and our ability to influence certain factors to reach different outcomes.
Integrative Medicine 30 Years in the Making
Prior to using what I have learned about Alzheimer’s disease to help educate others, I treated patients with complex behavioral and mood disorders for three decades. Following my fellowship at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, I dove into gaining a deeper understanding of mental health and behavioral disorders.
When I noticed the model in psychiatry relied solely upon symptom-based recommendations for medication and gave little consideration to biomechanical individuality, I developed Comprehensive Psychiatric Resources, an outpatient clinic for those with behavioral disorders. It was within this clinic that I utilized nutritional intervention to help treat symptoms. Since then, I have helped educate colleagues, clinicians, and patients on the effects integrative medicine has on mental health.
Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease
The human brain has an amazing capacity to create, imagine, and retain vital information, but it also has a physiological tendency towards deterioration. As far as we can tell, humans are the only species of animals prone to neurodegenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, which is partially due to our longer lifespans and larger brains.
Alzheimer’s disease is progressive. Once it starts, it continues to get worse until the brain eventually shuts down and the patient dies. Symptoms and severity of the disease are measured in stages – preclinical Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s, mild dementia due to Alzheimer’s, moderate dementia due to Alzheimer’s, and severe dementia due to Alzheimer’s.
Although there still isn’t a concrete explanation for what causes the brain to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s, the development of certain injuries on the brain have come to be understood as an explanation for why it occurs. These injuries, known as plaques and tangles, prevent vitals nutrients and other essential supplies from being transported, which leads to the shrinkage and deterioration of brain tissue.
Searching for Relief
Due to scientists’ inability to fully understand the inner-workings of Alzheimer’s, finding a cure has become a much more difficult task over time. Ineffective medications have led to looking at other mechanisms to treat the disease.
By the time the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is confirmed, internal damage is severe and most likely irreversible. One tactic researchers are using to try and tackle Alzheimer’s is by focusing on earlier detection rather than later-term treatments.
Lithium and Alzheimer’s
Dating back to the 1950s, lithium has been used to treat certain behavioral disorders, such as bipolar disorder. In 2000, researchers discovered that in addition to acting as a mood stabilizer, lithium also helped protect brain cells from premature death and increases gray matter in the brain. Because dementia is a result of brain cell death, lithium can be used to help treat certain forms of it, including Alzheimer’s.
After finding that the dementia rate was lower in bipolar patients than those in the general population, microdoses of lithium were given to Alzheimer’s patients to improve cognitive function.
Sharing What I Know About Alzheimer’s With the World
Although we have such a long road ahead of us when it comes to learning everything about Alzheimer’s, including treatments and prevention, there is a lot of information out there already. One thing I have learned over the years is that sharing what we know about mental health disorders doesn’t just prepare us for what’s out there, but it also leads to discovering more.
This is why I wrote Integrative Medicine for Alzheimer’s. We need to gain a better understanding of the information that’s already in front of us if we want to keep moving forward in finding a cure. That means learning what Alzheimer’s is at its core, what treatments have been effective, and how to use this information to our advantage.