Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD is recognised internationally for his exceptional work in helping to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Continuing my conversation with Dr. Tanzi, I asked him how close he and his team at Harvard are to finding a cure. Note: to read 'part two' visit this weblink.
He answered. "I think it's fair to say that we have learned through a variety of methods what pathology in the brain drives Alzheimer's disease and we've learned that we have to stop that pathology very early - fifteen years before there might be symptoms. As analogous to cancer, as soon as you have it you have a cell that's dividing awry. That starts to cause a tumour and that's when you start treating cancer. You don't wait until you have the tumour and you certainly don't wait until you have the symptoms of organ failure because of a tumour."
He continued. "To date, with Alzheimer's we've done just that. We wait until somebody already has dementia, meaning that if it's a cancer, that tumour has already grown to three inches, in which case you've already waited until the pathology has started to destroy the brain."
The co-author of New York Times best seller "Super Genes", explained in further detail. "We've now learned that the pathology comes early. We can start to detect when the pathology starts occurring, fifteen years before symptoms. I and others are developing drugs and therapies that stop that pathology from forming. To stop that pathology some people will need drugs and help but the lifestyle changes I mentioned earlier regarding diet, sleep, exercise and stress reduction together with meditation also help to limit that pathology in the brain. So you do what you can with lifestyle but for some people that's not going to be enough or it's too little too late, so we need drugs to stop the pathology."
I asked him if he had any new drugs on trial to stop the pathology. "I have a couple of drugs, one in trial and one going into trial. Pharmaceutical companies are still mainly targeting the first Alzheimer's gene I found in the 1980s thirty years ago called APP. So there are thousands of people working on this problem all around the world and I think we're finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, by realising that you don't wait till this disease strikes. You treat the pathology fifteen years before it harvests symptoms and now we're learning what that pathology is, the genes that lead to that, the lifestyle changes that lead to that and how to limit that and that's also guiding drug discovery which is very exciting right now."
Dr. Tanzi went on to say. "So you might ask, well what about the people who have the disease right now? I mean how do we help them and there we get back to inflammation. If people already have Alzheimer's disease, it's really inflammation that is the big enemy and so luckily my lab over the last couple of years has discovered the Alzheimer's genes that curb inflammation and we're now targeting those through new therapies and drugs. Those are currently in the works and that's going to be most important discovery for people who have this disease right now."
Finally, I asked Dr. Tanzi if it is possible to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's. "Let me impress the full list of things we can do to help reduce the risk of succumbing to Alzheimer's. I've already mentioned diet. A Mediterranean diet is probably the best. Taking care of the gut health with probiotics like yoghurt or using probiotic supplements is also beneficial. With regards to exercise we should aim for at least ten thousand steps a day (using one of the devices that measures this). We also have to take care of our intellectual stimulation by learning new things. Making new synapses gives you more resistance to this disease. We talk about the importance of being socially engaged because loneliness is a big factor for Alzheimer's."
Dr. Tanzi concluded by emphasising the importance of plenty of sleep. "And finally, sleep. It's during the deepest stages of sleep that the brain cleans out the plaque and other debris that leads to Alzheimer's disease which can also lead to Parkinson's disease. You need to cycle in and out of REM several times per night. If you're not getting seven to eight hours sleep, you're not engaged in that dreaming cycle enough and so the bottom line is four to six hours is not sufficient to clean the brain, especially as we get older. So it's never been more important to get seven to eight hours sleep per night."
Christopher Dines' new book, The Kindness Habit: Transforming our Relationship to Addictive Behaviours, co-authored with Dr Barbara Mariposa is out now.
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