Genes, Alzheimer’s Disease and Your Choice

PET scan of a human brain with Alzheimer's disease

Image via Wikipedia

New genes have been discovered that seem to be linked to Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).  AD currently affects over 5 million Americans and that number is expected to increase substantially by the year 2029.

This year the first baby boomers will reach their 65th birthdays. By 2029, all baby boomers will be at least 65 years old.  Ninety-five percent of all AD is in people 65 and older.

The discovery of new genes linked to AD is a step in the right direction.  Every bit of information that help scientists unlock the mystery of why this occurs puts us closer to being able to effectively treat AD.

Let’s pretend that we know every gene that is involved in the production of AD.  Let’s also pretend a test that exists to specifically detect all of these genes in you.  Would you want to find out?  What would you do if you had all of the genes linked to AD?

The truth of it is, there is nothing you could do to change your genes.  Your genes are your genes.  They are there and you can’t remove them.  What you can do, however, is change how they are expressed.  Just because a person has a specific gene does not mean it has to be expressed.  The expression of many of our genes is closely related to our environment.  Diet, exercise, smoking, pollution and stress are just a few things that can negatively or positively affect the expression of our genes.

So back to my first question.  What would you do if you had all the genes linked to AD?  You can’t change your genes, but you can change your risk factors.

There are many known risk factor that increase the risk of AD, independent of your genetic potential.  The number one risk is aging.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done about that.  We are all going to get older which is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is much better than the alternative!

Known risk factors for AD that are controllable are as follows:

You will notice that these risk factors significantly overlap with one another.  You will also notice that when you control one risk factor you will impact another.  If you can control these risk factors in your life you will significantly reduce your risk of developing AD regardless of your genetic potential.
Cardiovascular health is perhaps the most important.  Cardiovascular disease causes a chronic, low grade reduction in blood delivery to the brain.  This is known as hypoperfusion.  This hypoperfusion is responsible for protein synthesis defects that later result in the classic AD neurodegenerative lesions.

To keep your cardiovascular system as healthy as possible make sure you eat an anti-inflammatory diet and exercise.  Fish oil is also something you should consider.  Fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, has been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease mortality better than any other substance known.

Reduction of high blood pressure is also very important.  When blood pressure is too high it fuels a kind of scarring linked to later development of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.  Controlling your blood pressure is actually very simple.  You must maintain a healthy weight first and foremost.  This, of course, means diet and exercise.  Increasing waistlines mean more tissue and blood vessels for your heart to push blood through. This puts a strain on the heart and increases the resistance the heart must push against.

Keeping a healthy cholesterol profile is essential.  However, the traditional tests from your doctor are probably not enough to tell whether you are at risk or not.  Traditional tests examine total cholesterol, HDL (“good”), LDL (“bad”) and triglycerides.  These are of some value, but they don’t tell the whole story.  What you must find out is the particle size.  In a nut shell, large and buoyant molecules of cholesterol are not as problematic as small and dense particles.  Your traditional test does not distinguish between the two.  Your traditional test might look very good, but a more advanced test may show that you are still very much at risk.  See my blog entry from last summer for more detailed information.

Diabetes is also extremely important to control.  Some references are referring to Alzheimer’s as Type III diabetes because of the biochemical similarities. Even being borderline diabetic raises the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia by 70%!  Diabetes’ hallmark is high blood sugar.  This high blood sugar leads to a phenomenon called advanced glycation end products or AGEs.  AGEs adversely affect the structure and function of proteins. In combination with oxidative stress brain function is easily affected.  Advanced glycation end products have been found to be much more prevalent in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients than in healthy controls. This process begins early on in the course of Alzheimer’s and there is also evidence that AGEs assist in the formation of plaques seen in AD.  Diet and exercise are the best ways to prevent diabetes and reduce your risk of AD.

While the study for a purely genetic link to AD will continue, a cure is likely many years away if one can even be found.  What we can control, however, are our lifestyle choices that activate our genes.  If we choose poorly, we are much more likely to activate unfavorable genes that cause disease.  If we choose wisely, we are more likely to activate genes that are favorable and reduce our risk of further disease.  The choice is yours.  Make the right one.

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