The statistics associated with Alzheimer’s disease are staggering:
Over 5 million Americans currently have it, a number that may balloon to 16 million
by 2050. Amid the facts and figures lies the heartbreak of families who helplessly
watch loved ones slip into a shadowland where spouses, children and grandchildren
no longer have names. Science hasn’t completely mapped the biochemical changes
responsible for this thief of selfhood. But we do know that a healthy lifestyle,
including brain-protective nutrition, can give you a fighting chance against it.
By Lisa James
It started when Emily Balfour’s dad, Bob, could no longer handle the math required for his job as a construction project manager. “At one point his boss noticed something was wrong, so they had him do less intensive tasks at work and he struggled with them,” says the 22-year-old from Alpharetta, Georgia. Two years after signs first appeared, the elder Balfour was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in February 2007—at age 53.
The Balfour family is no stranger to Alzheimer’s; Emily’s grandmother died of it and her uncle, David, was diagnosed about the same time as her father. “He just became so quiet and distant,” she recalls about her uncle, “and would become confused if you asked about something that happened two months prior.” Early-onset Alzheimer’s, which tends to appear among people in their fifties, often runs in families. This puts Emily, a student at Georgia’s Valdosta State University, at a higher risk than most of her classmates. “I’m not too worried about it right now,” she says.
For people like Emily Balfour, the search for an Alzheimer’s cure takes on personal meaning. Eventually, though, advancing age means that Alzheimer’s disease can catch up with anyone; more than 90% of those afflicted show symptoms after age 65. “Advanced age is the strongest risk factor for Alzheimer’s,” says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, geriatric neurologist, founder of Sun Health Research Institute’s Cleo Roberts Center for Clinical Research in Sun City, Arizona and author of The Alzheimer’s Answer (Wiley). If preventative measures—especially the widespread adoption of healthy habits—aren’t taken soon, “one in every eight baby boomers is destined to get it. That’s 8 to 10 million people,” Sabbagh warns. “This could be one of the diseases that swallow up whole budgets.”
It is important to note that Alzheimer’s is not inevitable: “There are people who go to their graves who are fine from a cognitive standpoint,” Sabbagh says. Some memory loss occurs as part of the aging process, but when it becomes “extensive or is starting to impact your daily life, that’s when you know it has moved past being benign."
Alzheimer’s disrupts brain function by killing neurons—the brain itself actually shrinks. Plaques consisting of beta-amyloid, a protein processing byproduct, accumulate outside the cells, while neurofibrillary tangles form within...