By Hana Frenette
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and cognitive skills. The disease is the most common form of dementia and currently affects 5.5 million people in the United States.
While research surrounding prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s is ongoing, scientists know the disease involves complex changes in the brain. These changes cause once-healthy neurons to stop functioning, lose the ability to communicate with other neurons, and die.
Abnormal Protein Deposits and Tangles
There are many naturally occurring proteins in the brain. One form of protein, beta-amyloid 42, is thought to be especially toxic. For someone with Alzheimer’s, abnormal levels of this protein clump together to form plaques that collect between neurons and disrupt cell function, resulting in reduced cognitive abilities.
Scientists also believe neurofibrillary tangles play a large role in the disruption of neuron function and cognitive decline. These protein strand tangles are abnormal accumulations of a protein called tau that collects inside neurons. In healthy neurons, tau serves as a binding and stabilizing agent, but in those with Alzheimer’s, the tau sticks to other tau molecules, forming tangles inside neurons and disrupting the transportation of vital cell nutrients.
Loss of Neuronal Connections
Both tau protein tangles and abnormal plaque deposits disrupt the neuron’s transport system through the brain and harm communication with other neurons. This loss of neuronal connections affects the activity of brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, and creates flawed brain signaling which impacts the ability to learn, remember and communicate.
Reduction in Brain Volume
As neurons die throughout the brain, connections between networks of neurons break down, which causes many brain regions to shrink.
In the final stages of Alzheimer’s, brain atrophy— or the loss of brain cells— is widespread, causing significant loss of brain volume. The cerebral cortex becomes thinner, resulting in the loss of older, long-term memories.
Quick healthy living tips to reduce your risk for developing Alzheimer’s Disease
Keep moving: Numerous studies show staying active may greatly reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Challenge Your Brain: Research has found those who stay intellectually challenged through brain puzzles, reading, social engagement or memory games, are less likely to develop some form of dementia as they age.
Eat a Mediterranean Diet: A Mediterranean diet can also lower inflammation and blood sugar levels, thus reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Incorporate lean proteins, olive oil, whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables into your diet.
Head Safety: Reduce your risk of traumatic brain injury by wearing a helmet during activities like biking, climbing and playing contact sports.
Around ten years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledged the unmet need — and urgency — of including patient perspective in drug and device development in a systematic way.