What is Dementia?
Dementia is not a disease. It is an umbrella term applied to a group of symptoms related to memory loss, the ability to perform daily activities, engage in rational thinking, make plans, and communicate with others.
Dementia-related diseases include Alzheimer’s dementia, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and others.
Of these, Alzheimer’s dementia is the most common cause of the symptoms associated with dementia. It accounts for 60% to 80% of cases, and it is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Every 65 seconds, doctors diagnose one of our fellow citizens with this disease.*
Because it is the most devastating form of dementia, Interact Well Care focuses primarily on Alzheimer’s dementia. Bear in mind, however, that if you reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s dementia, you will also be reducing your risk of dementia in general, as well as many other health problems.
3 Hallmarks of Alzheimer’s Dementia
- Cell death, leading to brain shrinkage
- Beta-amyloid plaques
- Neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles
Hallmark #1: Cell Death
Your brain has billions of nerve cells called neurons. These neurons are constantly firing messages throughout your brain and nervous system. As you age, risk factors create obstacles in the brain that make it more and more difficult for neurons to transmit these messages. These factors include lack of sleep, constant stress, toxins in your environment, unhealthy foods, and heart problems.
Enough obstacles and neurons begin dying. These deaths cause the brain to shrink in size—a hallmark of Alzheimer’s dementia. With widespread cell death, the patient’s memory and ability to reason suffer.
Hallmark #2: Beta-Amyloid Plaques
Under ideal circumstances, beta-amyloid is a protein that scientists think may help protect the brain from infections. But when the brain overproduces these sticky proteins, they begin clumping together to form plaques. These plaques attach to the neuron at the point of the synapse and make it impossible for neurons to transfer messages across that synapse.
When this happens, the neurons have outlived their usefulness. Scientists think this is what triggers tau tangles to form in the neuron.
Hallmark #3: Tau Tangles
Each neuron has a tubular structure inside it that acts as a simple skeleton for neurons and an internal transport system for nutrients. For some reason, when beta-amyloid plaques accumulate outside of a neuron, the tau proteins unravel from around the network of fibers and create a neurofibrillary tangle, or tau tangle. These tangles choke off the neuron from inside, making it impossible for the neuron to survive.
How Alzheimer’s Dementia Advances Through the Brain
Alzheimer’s dementia has a fairly predictable journey through the brain:
The damage that beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles do to neurons seems to occur first in the hippocampus, the center of memory in the brain.
The plaques and tangles spread from the hippocampus to other parts of the brain, which results in further cell (neuron) damage and death.
When the plaques and tangles reach the frontal cortex—the executive function of the brain—the brain loses its ability to reason, understand concepts, or make decisions.
Soon language declines, and patients begin using incorrect words. This is when people begin to suspect Alzheimer’s dementia.
Eventually, the damage from plaques and tangles is so extensive that the patient enters a vegetative state and dies.
For years, researchers have assumed that beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles are the cause of Alzheimer’s dementia, so they have been seeking a way to eliminate them from the brain. The theory is that knowing how to do this will point to a treatment, preferably medicinal, that will reverse the advance of Alzheimer’s dementia.
I hope one day these researchers succeed, but it seems unlikely. After years of well-funded research by some of our brightest minds, we are no closer to reversing or healing Alzheimer’s dementia.
A New Approach to Dementia
Scientists are now suggesting a new approach, one that focuses as much on what happens outside the brain as on what happens inside.
This is the approach I advocate.
These scientists have found strong associations between cognitive decline and inflammatory food, poor sleep, stress, inactivity, toxins, an unhealthy gut, high blood pressure, heart problems, and other sources of poor health.
If so, this is good news because addressing these problems will allow you to control your health and your cognitive function. Our goal at Interact Well Care is to help you achieve this brighter future.
* You can check these and other statistics about Alzheimer’s at these three websites:
Alzheimer’s Association. What is dementia? Retrieved December 31, 2018 from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia;
National Institute on Aging (2019, August 1). Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet. Retriened from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers-disease-fact-sheet;
Alzheimer’s Statistics (2017). Retrieved from https://www.alzheimers.net/resources/alzheimers-statistics/