Alzheimer’s disease is one of those medical conundrums, which seems to mock the best efforts of medical researchers worldwide. After over a hundred years of study, nobody is quite sure what exactly causes the disease.
We know it manifests itself in the anatomy of the brain, as abnormal folding of functional nerve proteins, which disrupt normal nerve cell function. Plaques of beta-amyloid protein accumulate, but apparently do not directly cause the disease. There are similarities to diseases such as Mad Cow Disease, and, yet there appears to be no infective agent per se, although Herpes simplex virus may be a co-factor in the development of the disease. Genetics plays a role as well, but again, to what extent, no one seems quite sure. One hallmark of the disease is prolonged inflammation and inflammatory response within the brain, adding yet another layer of complexity to the puzzle.
This is what makes the disease so terrifying and particularly frustrating to me as a doctor. When my ageing patients, who fear they are getting the disease, or are at risk for the disease, ask me what they can do to slow down or prevent Alzheimer’s, there’s not a lot I can offer them in terms of prescription drugs.
In fact, there is nothing I can offer them in terms of conventional medicine, except hope in a breakthrough at some future time. Hope is a weak tonic for those diagnosed with the disease and their family members who face the burden and expense of long term care.
You see, part and parcel to the complex progression of Alzheimer’s (and a host of other age-related diseases) are the dual factors of inflammation and oxidative stress. Blueberries are particularly rich in antioxidants known as anthocyanins (the compounds which give the berries their blue-purple color) and polyphenols. (These are the same class of antioxidant compounds found in red wine, which account for wine’s health benefits.)
Blueberries offer powerful antioxidant protection, particularly for the brain, eyes and vascular system, as we discussed in a previous NHI article (1). In terms of memory and cognitive performance, studies in both humans and rats, offer compelling evidence for consuming blueberries on a daily basis as protection against mental decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease and “normal” aging.
It’s intriguing to note the cognitive benefits attributed to blueberries may not only be related to anti-inflammation and anti-oxidation, but to a more direct mode of action. Some recent research indicates certain compounds in blueberries may boost nerve signals and activate alternate proteins used in memory and cognition.
Whatever the mode of action, blueberries are certainly worth consuming on a regular basis. Unless you are allergic to them, blueberries present virtually zero risk of side effects and the beautiful thing about “blueberry therapy” is one need not consume heroic amounts of the berry. Just half a cup full with your cereal in the morning or mixed with yogurt will suffice, as will blueberry juice, usually available at most health-oriented food stores.