Addressing Alzheimer’s

Can consumption of omega-3 fatty acids help prevent the disease?
One seafood meal a week can help protect the brain of a person at heightened risk for Alzheimer’s. Photography: @thebeachpeople

By Tapp Francke Ingolia

The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, deteriorates a person’s memory and over time, prevents them from being able to perform basic functions like dressing or feeding themselves. The disease slowly takes away the Alzheimer’s patient’s essence, and as I watch my stepfather’s descent, it is heartbreaking. The body remains, but the memories—the history, the years you’ve spent with that person—are gone.

The disease represents 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Approximately 5.8 million people in the U.S. are afflicted with this memory-robbing condition. Though not considered a normal part of the aging process, age is the greatest risk factor. The majority of people afflicted are over the age of 65. Though the disease is less common in younger people, they are not immune: Around 200,000 people under 65 have an early form of the disease called early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s is fatal. The time between diagnosis and death can be as short as three to eight years, though some may survive for up to 20 years. The rate of death from Alzheimer’s is on the rise: It increased 123 percent between 2000 and 2015 in the U.S.

What happens to the brain?

Memories, thoughts, feelings and sensations are the result of neuronal communication in the brain. It is thought that alterations to this communication in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients may occur as many as 20 years before symptoms begin. The demise of the brain’s neurons causes the brain to shrink. Initially, the damage takes place in the hippocampus and entorhinal regions of the brain, which are responsible for memory formation. Over time, this neuronal destruction spreads to other parts of the brain like the cerebral cortex, which controls language, reasoning and behavior, then on to even more areas, resulting in more brain damage and eventually, death.

What can you do?

Despite significant time, energy and resources devoted to testing, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s are not well understood. Though there are drugs on the market that help treat symptoms, there is no cure. Stress, an unbalanced diet and microbiome-affecting drugs are possible contributing factors. Interventions, such as regular exercise and maintaining a Mediterranean diet, have been shown to be helpful in slowing the progression of the disease.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acids that includes DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). This class of fats is considered essential because our body cannot produce them. As a result, they must come in through diet or supplements. The brain, which is approximately 60 percent fat, of which 35 percent is polyunsaturated fat, is dependent on this fat. These essential fats determine the brain’s integrity and ability to function properly.

Specific to the progression of Alzheimer’s, consumption of omega-3 fatty acid DHA has been shown to increase a protein called LR11. LR11 helps to prevent the formation of beta-amyloid plaques, one of the causes of neuronal degradation in Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, DHA has been shown to reduce the buildup of the tau kinase enzyme, which causes the tau to misfold and build up in the neurons, resulting in tau tangles.

It should be noted that the more advanced the Alzheimer’s progression, the less this dietary measure has been shown to help. Though this information may not be able to help my stepfather, it might be able to assist someone who is subclinical, or someone whose disease process has not yet begun.