Unconventional Alzheimer’s

Nearly 4.5 millions Americans are affected by  Alzheimer’s Disease.  According to the National Institute on Aging, this incurable illness is the most common form of dementia in the elderly.  Nearly every American family has lost a friend or loved one to it.  We are all too familiar with the disease’s course: the slow, inexorable advance from mild confusion and little memory lapses to devastating brain damage and death.  We might be especially aware of its presence in our lives as the holiday season approaches, bringing with it many gatherings of old friends and relatives.

Modern scientific studies and research projects have taught us a great deal about Alzheimer’s as doctors and scientists search for both a cure for the disease and better treatments to manage the symptoms.  Complementary and alternative treatments are also being carefully tested and systematically evaluated.  Before we look at what science says about various CAM treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease, let’s go over what CAM actually is – and is not.

CAM is  famously hard to describe and define.  The field is always changing, is broad and complex, and often uses techniques and products that are hard to evaluate with traditional Western scientific methods.  The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine defines CAM as ‘a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine‘.  Western, or allopathic, medicine, the familiar modern, conventional approach, is the medicine practiced by MD‘s (medical doctors) and DO’s (doctors of osteopathic medicine), along with other health professionals, including registered nurses, therapists, psychologists, nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants.

Here’s where it gets a bit confusing.  There are no absolute or fixed boundaries between conventional medicine and CAM, and over time, more and more specific CAM treatments and practices have become widely accepted.  When CAM is used together with conventional medicine (say, with acupuncture for pain management), this is the ‘complementary’ part.  When CAM takes the place of conventional treatment, we have the ‘alternative’ part.  Integrated or integrative medicine combines the two, using treatments from CAM that have proven their safety and effectiveness along with conventional medical treatment.

Now, back to Alzheimer’s Disease.  Let’s have a look at some of the CAM therapies that are being considered to help treat this devastating illness.


The scientific evidence:

  • Antioxidants are being extensively studied and researched as there is much laboratory and observational evidence of their potential health benefits.  National Institute of Health studies, including those sponsored by NCCAM,  are investigating fish oil and alpha-lipoic acid and their ability to help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
  • At present, there is not enough scientific evidence to determine whether or not antioxidants such as fish oil and alpha-lipoic acid aid in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
Side effects and cautions:
  • Fish oil supplements may cause some gastrointestinal upsets, including heartburn, indigestion, bloating and diarrhea.
  • In high doses, fish oil can interact with some medications, including drugs used for high blood pressure and blood thinners.  
  • In low to moderate doses, Omega-3s are generally safe for most adults.  The FDA concluded that omega-3 dietary supplements from fish are ‘generally recognized as safe’.
  • While fish oil supplements do not appear to contain harmful substances, there are those who have questioned the safety of such supplements as some species of fish contain high levels of mercury, pesticides or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  Again, fish oil supplements do not appear to contain these substances.  
The scientific evidence:
  • Exciting and interesting areas of recent NCCAM-funded research include the herb’s potential effects on insulin resistance, cancer and Alzheimer’s.  
  • While Asian ginseng has been studied widely for many uses, very few large, quality clinical trials have yet been conducted.  Research results thus far do not conclusively support health claims commonly associated with the herb.  What evidence is available is still preliminary, based on lab research or small clinical trials.
Side effects and cautions:
  • Allergic reactions have been reported among some Asian ginseng users.
  • Short-term use of ginseng, at the recommended doses, appears to be safe for most adults.  There are reports of side effects with prolonged use.
  • Common side effects include headaches and gastrointestinal and sleep problems.
  • Asian ginseng may lower levels of blood sugar, an effect more often seen in those with diabetes.  Given this effect, anyone who is diabetic should use extra caution with ginseng.  This is particularly the case if a person with diabetes is already taking medicines to lower blood sugar or taking other herbs (bitter melon or fenugreek, for example, also thought to lower blood sugar).
  • Reports of breast tenderness, high blood pressure and menstrual irregularities have been associated with products containing Asian ginseng.  It is worth noting that the other ingredients or components of these products were not analyzed.  The reported effects may well have been due to other herbs or drugs in the products.
Tomorrow, the latest research on cat’s claw and grape seed extract as related to the treatment of Alzheimer’s.

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