Alzheimer’s is one of the diseases people fear: the symptoms appear to be such an unknown quantity – and the disease one that cannot be predicted or even diagnosed very easily.

Some clinicians maintain that the only way of truly diagnosing Alzheimer’s is at post-mortem. This may seem rather gloomy – but there is hope, with better tools for testing early-stage patients and the development of drugs like Rember (methylthioninium chloride), which halts decline in brain impairment.

There are also lifestyle changes that can be made to help reduce the risk – and keep your brain firing on all cylinders well into old age.

What causes Alzheimer’s?

No one is completely sure what causes Alzheimer’s but the condition is a brain injury caused by a wasting of brain tissue. Memory is affected and it is this gradual diminishing of a person’s memories and recognition of their past and present which is most frightening for both patients and their loved ones.

Alzheimer’s is characterised by an increase in certain types of protein in the brain – these proteins are called tau and beta-amyloid. The tau protein builds up inside the brain’s nerve cells – and beta-amyloid proteins fill in the spaces between the nerve cells in the brain. The effect of the tau protein is referred to as “tangles” and the effect of beta-amyloid protein “plaques”. As people age, they may naturally develop tangles and plaques – but in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, these accumulate to the point where the brain’s nerve cells begin to die and brain function becomes impaired.

Are some people more at risk of Alzheimer’s?

There are several factors which may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and these include age, as well as having a parent or brother or sister with Alzheimer’s. This may double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s – and it is this fear which causes many people to become anxious about their future.

Scientists have found two genes linked to Alzheimer’s so far – although there could many more. The ApoE 4 gene increases risk but is not a predictor for Alzheimer’s; however, a deterministic gene has been identified which indicates that an individual might develop Alzheimer’s at a much earlier age.

This may seem rather frightening, but gene therapy is one of main areas of research being considered for beating inherited diseases – and in the future, manipulating genes which carry an increased risk for certain diseases will be one way of treating disease.

What is the NHS doing about Alzheimer’s?

The NHS is now routinely testing all those of pensionable age for Alzheimer’s. The tests consist mainly of logic and mental agility exercises and are carried out by a GP. You may be asked to recite the Alphabet backwards, for example – and it may be tempting to start practising if you might have to take an Alzheimer’s assessment!

This is actually the best course of action you could take to prevent Alzheimer’s, because keeping mentally active and agile is one of the most effective ways of keeping your brain healthy and functioning.

The 6 pillars and Alzheimer’s

Harvard Medical School has contributed a wealth of information to the HelpGuide website to offer lots of tips and advice on how to beat Alzheimer’s at its own game, including the 6 Pillars of a Brain Healthy Lifestyle. The Brain Injury Experts are another organisation that supports Headway and HelpGuide.

The 6 Pillars are:

Regular Exercise – to reduce stress, boost energy, improve circulation, maintain energy and agility, trounce depression and improve memory and sleep. Stretching exercises and swimming are excellent if you are elderly or not too active – brisk walks are also brilliant, with or without dog or friend. Find a beautiful location to walk in and give your brain a big hit of the happiness neurotransmitter serotonin as well. Learn how to become strong.

Healthy Diet – follow the Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, oily fish, green leafy vegetables, brightly coloured fruit, whole grains, cooked tomatoes and tomato puree, plus a little red wine and 70% cocoa dark chocolate. Avoid trans-fats (eg fat in pastry, biscuits, cakes, margarines, fast food and fry ups) – and eat plenty of Omega-3 foods like oily fish and flax seeds (linseed oil). Eat 4-6 smaller meals a day instead of three hefty feasts. Green tea and ipe roxo tea also has anti-oxidant benefits to keep brain cells healthy – and normal tea is an anti-oxidant which can also help protect teeth and arteries. Also avoid recreational drugs, smoking and heavy drinking, all of which can clobber brain cells in the long run.

Mental stimulation – everything you read about Brain Training is true, as keeping your neurons fired up and agile helps protect against those tangles and plaques forming. Doing quizzes and crosswords, acquiring new information and skills helps the brain make new connections. When journalists write news stories, they use the format “Who, What, Where, When, Why?” – apply this to your daily life and you can not only keep tabs on your neighbours, but keep your brain ticking over like a hack without going through the bins.

Quality Sleep – grandma was right, as an hour before midnight is worth 10 hours afterwards when it comes to sleep. Establish a bedtime routine when you switch off TVs, radios and PCs, snuggle down after a warm bath with a cup of hot milk and honey and a cuddle with the other half – and sleep like a baby. Get a good night sleep!

Stress management – stress can cause that confused feeling you sometimes get, which makes it hard to remember things or marshal your thoughts properly. This is the memory centre (called the hippocampus) shrinking as stress takes hold. Stress prevents nerve cells in the brain from regenerating, so refuse to get stressed, switch off, take a deep breath, have a cup of tea and relax. De-stress and help give Alzheimer’s the elbow.

Active social life – yes, living it large with friends can help reduce your Alzheimer’s risk, as can doing volunteer work, Bingo, community gardening, going to the flicks, helping out at your church – or any activity which brings you into contact with others. Stimulation is the key and the warm glow you get from feeling part of your community and having friends can get those brain cells fired up and fighting.

And finally, if you engage in sports activities, make sure you always wear a protective helmet if required, as a link between traumatic head/brain injury and Alzheimer’s has been identified by researchers.