Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is frightening for many of us – the prospect of losing our memory and identity to dementia is listed as one of the top three fears of aging. And yet the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s is increasing, with 1 in 10 Australians over 65 having AD¹, and dementia reported as the second leading cause of death (for women, it’s the leading cause)². Coupled with a lack of proven effective treatments, it’s easy to see why an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is so feared.
But American dementia expert Amy Berger offers Alzheimer’s patients hope in her book, The Alzheimer’s Antidote.
What is Alzheimer’s?
According to Dementia Australia, Alzheimer’s disease is a physical brain condition resulting in impaired memory, thinking and behaviour. It disrupts the brain’s neurons, affecting how they work and communicate with each other. A decrease in important chemicals stops messages from travelling normally through the brain³. But what’s happening to the brain that allows these potentially fatal changes? Amy’s theory is that the true cause of Alzheimer’s is a “systemic metabolic problem coming from the inside.” This begs the question – if the cause is something that’s happening internally, then surely the solution is something that treats from within also? She says, “Implying that something as devastating as AD can be prevented with crossword puzzles or Sudoku is irresponsible and downright insulting.”
Preventing and managing Alzheimer’s through diet
At its core, Alzheimer’s results from a fuel shortage in the brain. As the cells become increasingly unable to access glucose for their energy, they wither and die. What causes this disconnect? Insulin resistance. The connection between the brain and insulin resistance is so prevalent that Alzheimer’s is often called ‘type 3 diabetes’ or ‘diabetes of the brain’
We know the life-changing impact that a low carb diet has on type 2 diabetes and improving insulin sensitivity. Amy argues that following a low carb, healthy-fat diet can also manage and potentially prevent AD. Evidence shows⁴ that low carb has successfully treated many central nervous system disorders and other neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s. In fact, one of the leading researchers into ketones and brain health has suggested that a drawback of our modern, carb-heavy diet is that it is “keto-deficient”⁵, such is the benefit of ketones, produced when you eat a very low carb, healthy fat diet.
All of which begs the question: why isn’t a low carb diet recommended to everyone living with Alzheimer’s?
The connection between insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s
In The Alzheimer’s Antidote, Amy refers to Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes as “physiological cousins”. They both result from the same disturbances in the body, but manifest differently. For those who develop type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance affects the muscles and organs. In Alzheimer’s, insulin resistance affects the brain. It doesn’t mean that those with type 2 diabetes will go on to develop AD, or vice-versa. However, for people with type 2 diabetes, who can no longer produce insulin to carry glucose to important cells like the brain, there is a 20% risk of developing AD⁶, roughly double that of someone without diabetes.
Just like the success we’ve seen with sending type 2 diabetes into remission, switching to a healthy fat, low carb diet can improve brain function. Amy highlights how “…Alzheimer’s
Disease is mainly caused by a lack of energy from glucose in certain parts of the brain”. However, when the brain doesn’t have enough glucose, it can still work perfectly using ketones from fat as its fuel. It can even reverse AD symptoms by achieving a mild state of nutritional ketosis (when your body burns fat for energy rather than glucose). This also triggers other beneficial effects, including reduced beta-amyloid plaques or Aβ plaques (protein fragments that accumulate in the brain and, when solidified, can interfere with our cells’ ability to communicate). Although Aβ plaques can be found in healthy brains, problems arise when they form in larger, insoluble masses. Reducing plaques is what many AD medications have unsuccessfully tried to do. This idea of switching to fat to fuel our brains is the foundation for the entire book. Evidence shows a a huge decrease in glucose in the areas of the brain responsible for learning and memory in AD patients, so replacing this missing energy with ketones from fat makes sense.
The importance of sleep in preventing Alzheimer’s
Amy’s work also clearly shows how not getting enough sleep is linked to the build-up of Aβ plaques, as the brain’s “house-cleaning” system is only active when we are sleeping. She actually refers to a lack of sleep as “breaking the brain”, and when combined with stress and a diet rich in glucose, sleeplessness can be a blueprint for Alzheimer’s.
About the Alzheimer’s Antidote
The Alzheimer’s Antidote presents information in a way that’s easy to understand yet with enough detail for anyone reading with a healthcare background. She creates powerful analogies to understand complex medical jargon better, such as her explanation of the effect of plaque building in the brain due to insulin resistance: “Think of everyday household trash. It isn’t a problem if it’s regularly hauled away. But if the workers go on strike, the trash accumulates and builds up to levels that will make the neighbourhood unlivable.”
The book is thoughtfully organised into four sections, each providing essential information for managing AD through changes to diet. Everything you need to know is covered, from the scientific foundation to the basics of nutrition and the impact of lifestyle factors. You’ll also gain valuable insights into the potential hazards of decreasing dietary cholesterol and the health advantages of dietary fat woven throughout the book.
The Alzheimer’s Antidote provides “real help and real hope” (Dr Georgia Ede), for families caring for a loved one affected by Alzheimer’s and those looking to prevent AD themselves. It is a valuable guide for understanding the role of diet in brain health and how a low carb, healthy fat approach is the answer the world desperately wants to hear.