In an ideal world we would be free from many of the diseases that reduce quality of life and sometimes end it altogether. Diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease are consistently ranked amongst the top causes of death in America. The medical community spends large resources every year to research cures and treatments, some of which are certainly helpful for extending or improving quality of life for certain patients. What is even more exciting to me, though, is the science supportive of prevention rather than cure.
There is a growing body of evidence (such as research referenced by this New York Times article) to suggest that Alzheimer’s may be caused, at least in part, by either a lack of insulin in the brain or by the brain’s insulin receptors becoming “numb” to insulin, which is called insulin resistance. Many of us may know that this happens to other parts of the body in type II diabetes, but it might be occurring to the brain as well in what may come to be dubbed type III diabetes. In other words a poor diet – specifically one high in sugar and other carbohydrates – may damage more than just our physical capabilities; it may damage our mental capabilities as well.
For me, learning about the powers of diet, both positive and negative, has completely changed my perspective. I used to think of all food as equivalent fuel and that you either had too little (malnourished) or too much (obesity), and you could correct either by adding or subtracting food and/or exercise. But the more I read and the more I experience myself, it is becoming clearer to me that it is not that simple. While you may be able to “burn off” the calories from a candy bar and a soda, the exercise alone may not offset all the negative effects of those “foods” not to mention the opportunity cost of what you didn’t get when you ate them, and what your body spends to process and filter them, namely micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
The great news about information like this on Alzheimer’s is that we may have more control over health and disease than we once thought. In my experience Alzheimer’s disease, like many others, was primarily thought of as a product of either random chance or predetermination from your family genes, something you were destined for from birth. And it’s hard not to believe that until science is able to make connections and draw conclusions about possible causes.
However, as the research from the aforementioned article points out, things you can control, namely your diet, may play the biggest part of all in determining how those genes play out over time. In other words, even if a genetic profile makes you susceptible to a disease, the way you fuel and treat your body still has a large impact on whether or not those genes do end up making you sick. At the very least we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by optimizing our nutrition, both by adding healthy foods AND eliminating unhealthy foods or processed junk “foods.”
Many folks may have an image of Alzheimer’s as the cute and lovable, but forgetful grandpa on TV that mixes up Mondays and Tuesdays or calls his grandson by his granddaughter’s name and then simply laughs it off with the rest of the family upon their correction. Perhaps some patients’ Alzheimer’s cases are this benign in their symptoms, but I can assure you not all of them are.
My grandmother passed away at the young age of 60 from this awful disease, and there was nothing benign about it, neither for her nor her family. Depending on what parts of the mind are affected, the things that one can no longer remember and the simple skills they can no longer perform render the physical earth a terrifying and impossible place to live. Years later, at the age of 76, my grandfather then passed away of a similar disease known as Lewy body disease.
No one can say for certain that the course of my grandparents’ lives could have been changed by diet, but the possibility of prevention is an exciting development for our future. Both lived great lives, and we all shared that with them. We did the best we could with what we had and lived life to the fullest. What is also important, though, is that we continue to grow and adapt to powerful new knowledge that is being discovered every day. We may have more control over our own health than we ever knew possible, and so much of that may all lie within the food choices we make. It’s a wonderful piece of hope for the future of our health, and it is my dream that humanity continues to become more empowered in the creation of health and prevention of disease, at least as much as, if not more than, medicines and cures.