There are an estimated 472,000 Australian’s living with a form of dementia. Without a significant medical breakthrough, this figure is projected to more than double by 2058. The medical profession has been desperately searching for a cure for a long time. However, after years of research and medication trials, the general consensus is that Alzheimer’s is incurable.
We recently caught up with Dr Matthew Phillips, a neurologist and researcher from Waikato Hospital in New Zealand, who’s on a mission to prove otherwise. He discusses the link between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s and how a ketogenic diet may be the answer the medical world has been waiting for.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia. Dementia describes a collection of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain. Dementia affects thinking, memory, attention and behaviour and can significantly impact daily function and quality of life. There are multiple causes of dementia with Alzheimer’s the most common, accounting for 70% of dementia cases in Australia.
There are many theories as to what Alzheimer’s is, with the most widely accepted being too many proteins in the brain cells. However, Dr Phillips characterises it as a “disorder of impaired energy metabolism with mitochondria dysfunction at the heart of it.”
Mitochondria are the “energy factories” of our body. Their job is to process oxygen and convert the foods we eat into energy. Dr Phillips hypothesis is that Alzheimer’s is due to energy problems in mitochondria.
Can a keto diet help cure Alzheimer’s?
Dr Phillips recently published results from his study in which 26 patients with clinically confirmed diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease were randomly assigned to either a ketogenic diet or their usual diet supplemented with low fat healthy eating guidelines for a period of 12 weeks.
Patients then reverted to their normal diet for 10 weeks to reset before swapping diets for 12 weeks to enable comparison.
All patients on the ketogenic diet reported improvements in quality of life and daily function to the point of clinical significance. These two factors are of great importance to people living with dementia. Cognitive impairment improved slightly but was not statistically significant.
While there’s more we need to understand about diet and Alzheimer’s, this is the clearest evidence so far of a positive effect of a ketogenic diet in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
So, why aren’t more Alzheimer’s patients going keto?
Dr Phillips says traditionally, medical practitioners are “trained to see all these things as diseases, and the way to defeat them is by using drugs to eliminate or suppress bad proteins in the brain.”
He says that’s the direction most researchers are taking, but he doesn’t believe it will work. He sees Alzheimer’s as a disorder, not a disease. “It’s a disorder that arises as a secondary effect of the true disease, which is mitochondrial dysfunction. It’s a huge distinction.
“Mitochondria dysfunction is not a target you attack or suppress or eliminate; it’s one you try to restore. You want to improve health. The ketogenic diet is about improving brain health. The drugs are trying to attack a disease, but by attacking this disease, you’re not going to win. You’ll have short term victories, and you’ll be able to mask symptoms, but if you want to have a shot at restoring, you need to find therapies that are truly healing.”
Dr Phillips believes a shift in the mindset of medical practitioners is in need. “Doctors these days have not been trained to think of themselves to be able to restore and heal things. Instead, in the case of Alzheimer’s, we search for drug strategies that destroy proteins. But even if we destroy the proteins, it doesn’t necessarily improve Alzheimer’s.”
What is the link between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s?
Dr Phillips believes the link between metabolic syndromes such as type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s is mitochondria dysfunction.
‘Type 3 diabetes’ is a title that has been proposed for Alzheimer’s disease, although it is not yet an official medical term or a recognised condition. Alzheimer’s is triggered by insulin resistance (typical of type 2 diabetes) and inadequate insulin supplies (typical of type 1 diabetes). However, instead of happening in the pancreas, it occurs specifically in the brain.
Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes are two of the most prevalent diseases in the elderly population worldwide. Some studies suggest that those with type 2 diabetes have increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
The latest research suggests a low carb or keto approach can have a radical effect in managing type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s, but many practitioners are unaware or struggling to keep up with the latest science. With the prevalence of these conditions, and the numbers only getting worse, we need to look at diet as the solution, not drugs.
Dr Matthew Phillips is a neurologist and researcher from Waikato Hospital, New Zealand. His foremost passion is to explore the feasibility, safety, and efficacy of metabolic therapies, particularly fasting and ketogenic diets, in creating alternative metabolic states that may lead to improvements in symptoms, function, and quality of life for people with neurological disorders. You can learn more about his work at metabolicneurologist.com