According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published this autumn, the number of people in the US suffering from Alzheimer’s will almost triple in the space of 40 years, from 5 to almost 14 million. People are now surviving diseases such as cancer and heart disease thanks to ever-advancing developments in healthcare, and more are living into old age. With a larger elderly population, the number of people going on to develop Alzheimer’s also increases.
Is this an inevitability we have to accept? Is the slow decline into Alzheimer’s inevitable, or is there something we can do to avoid it?
Whether through its prevalence in the media or knowing a friend or relative suffering from the disease, most people are familiar with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s: a deterioration of cognitive function and memory loss. Stories become repeated, names of loved ones eventually vanish. These symptoms are associated with a build up of protein inside brain cells called tau tangles, or outside them as amyloid-beta plaques. They develop as a consequence of your body protecting itself from bad things. These responses fall into three groups(1):
- An inflammatory subtype. Inflammation is a bodily response to things like illness or injury, and is characterised by heightened levels of inflammatory signalling molecules called cytokines.
- An atrophic subtype. This means low levels of the molecules your brain needs to form synaptic connections between neurons (e.g. nerve growth factor, testosterone, vitamin D), meaning your neural network cannot be sustained as it should.
- A cortical subtype. This one relates to environmental toxins like heavy metals and toxic moulds.
A key area of research into how Alzheimer’s develops looks at the role of process called autophagy. Research has found that it reduces as we age(10), and deficits in its operation precedes protein accumulation in the Alzheimer’s brain.
Whilst there is always some level of autophagy going on in your body, it is hugely ramped up when your cells need to look inside for energy and nutrients — like during a fast.
Fasting has been an integral part of health and healing practices throughout the recorded history of mankind. This ancient tradition may be partially rooted in a cellular process we are now beginning to understand in modern scientific terms. One of the most evolutionary conserved cellular responses to organismal fasting is…autophagy, a process in which the cell self-digests its own components.
Levine & Kroemer, 2008(7)
Fasting, that is not taking in any calories, is a potent inducer of autophagy in almost all species(8). The length of time we need to fast to achieve this is still up for debate, but research in mice suggests that neuronal autophagy can be drastically increased with as little as 24 hours of non-eating(9).
Autophagy gets switched on when cells need to remodel themselves. This might be during developmental period in order to grow, or because they need to rid themselves of damage. The process helps our cells to deal with oxidative stress, infection or protein accumulation. Faulty autophagy is therefore likely to prevent these issues being fixed, and all are implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s.
Plus a lot more if you are interested….