“I know they say there is no cure for Alzheimer’s… But I was wondering if there’s any development in a cure you know about?” I was asked after my lecture on PET imaging of dementia this past summer. A number of technologists gathered around me, far more eager to hear my response to this question than they were to hear me speak on the continuing education topics.
The woman asking the question told us an emotional story of living with her father who had Alzheimer’s dementia, which meant she interacted everyday with somebody who had no idea who she was or appreciated all the things she had been doing for him in his old age. Everybody knows Alzheimer’s robs a person of memory, feelings and personality, but we forget that it also robs the people taking care of that person of happiness, too. Another technologist told us about his favorite teacher who he lost touch with because of the disease. He asked if there was something that could reverse it. “As far as I know, the answer is sadly no.”
But there is some hope. I told them one FDA-approved medicine named Aricept seems to slow down how quickly the dementia sets in by about 9 months. But no medicine reverses or halts the disease. So we began speaking about prevention. Somebody mentioned having a high level of education is associated with a lower rate of developing Alzheimer’s, which is supported in the literature. So is the association between regular exercise and a diet high in fruits and vegetables and the rate of developing Alzheimer’s.
While waiting for my airplane back, I became curious if there was something in our food that could prevent Alzheimer’s, which is by far the most common dementia in the United States. When I got home, I scoured the literature. Curcumin (the bioactive component of turmeric, used in day-to-day cooking and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries) kept popping up in my research. Studies on mice seemed to show that curcumin actually reversed a cause of the disease.
The current consensus is that there are probably two causes of Alzheimer's dementia. One cause is an increased production and accumulation of a protein called amyloid-beta 42 around brain cells. The other cause is accumulation of a different protein called tau tangles in brain cells. Both causes trigger inflammation, which is the direct cause of these brain cells dying.
A UCLA researcher named Dr. Gary Cole has shown in both in vitro (meaning outside a living organism, such cultured cells growing in petri dishes) and in vivo experiments (using mice) that curcumin fights the amyloid that accumulates in the brain in Alzheimer's in 3 ways: (1) breaking down accumulation of amyloid-beta plaques, (2) preventing amyloid from forming in the first place, and (3) helping reduce how much cholesterol is available in the brain. (High cholesterol levels have been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.)
You can read Dr. Cole’s research and his team’s explanations of why turmeric helps and why companies aren't running trials on it or selling it (basically because companies cannot patent curcumin found in turmeric) in two academic articles, "Neuroprotective Effects of Curcumin" (Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 2007) and "A Potential Role of the Curry Spice Curcumin in Alzheimer’s Disease" (Current Alzheimer Research, 2005). His UCLA colleague Dr. Gary Small has co-written a popular book titled “The Alzheimer's Prevention Program: Keep Your Brain Healthy for the Rest of Your Life” which puts a spotlight on turmeric.
Why? He explains in a videotaped interview for ShareCare.com, “People who eat Indian food frequently do better on memory tests.” If true, this is pretty amazing. He believes the biggest reason is that curcumin in turmeric is such a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. (You can see the video at http://www.sharecare.com/question/which-spices-good-sources-antioxidants.)
Dr. Small mentions a UCLA research project studying whether curcumin can prevent the build-up of amyloid in the brain, which started in March 2012 and will continue for four years. The results of this research will shed much needed light on whether turmeric can prevent Alzheimer’s in people because right now the published research has been done on cells and mice. So what are we do until those results come out?
Eat turmeric, and more spices like black peppers which I feel have a synergistic ability to help our bodies get more out of the spices we eat. I feel this way because according to the WHO, India has among the lowest rate of Alzheimer's disease in the industrialized world. Dr. Small’s anecdote that people who eat Indian food seem to do well on memory tests makes me think it isn’t just turmeric, but all the spices we eat. In fact, in our e-mail conversation he wrote, “I think there is more evidence for eating foods rich in turmeric than in ingesting curcumin pills since there may be something about the curcumin extract that makes it less effective than if it is ingested from a meal. It is possible that cooking oils help with the absorption.”
So if you eat a healthy Indian diet, keep at it. If not, add a dash of curry powder with turmeric to whatever you eat to keep your brain healthy for a long, long time.