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Fighting Alzheimer's

Dr. Oz’s Tips for Recognizing the Early Signs of Alzheimer’s

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” has experience dealing with Alzheimer’s — his mother was recently diagnosed and he discovered he has the APOE4 gene, predisposing him to the disease. We talked to Dr. Oz about how to recognize the signs of Alzheimer’s, how to prevent it, and new treatment methods for the disease.

Your mother was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As a devoted son and doctor, how are you navigating the best next steps for treatment along with your family?

Hearing this diagnosis more than a year ago meant the woman I know and love would start to disappear. I’m happy to say we now have some great physicians on hand helping her, and she is on newer medications. At this point in time, the main emphasis is on keeping my mom physically healthy and happy. 

We’ve noticed that she thrives after daily exercise, so that’s become an important part of her life and treatment plan. As a family, we’re also better at picking up any subtle signs that she may be in distress or that her condition is worsening.

There is still so much mystery surrounding the aging brain and overall brain health. What are the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s that often go unnoticed?

So many of the behaviors we dismiss as aging, forgetfulness, or stress are early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Now, all of us forget things or even get confused every once in a while, but when it starts to regularly disrupt your daily life, then it might be time to see a doctor. 

Some of the early subtle signs of Alzheimer’s disease include difficulty solving problems or completing familiar tasks, getting lost, trouble with spatial relationships, forgetting words, and misplacing objects like keys or a wallet. There’s a mental health component as well — changes in mood and personality, and lack of interest in social activities or hobbies you usually enjoy are causes for concern. 

Looking back now, I realize my mom had a lot of these early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and we just didn’t notice. She had become increasingly stubborn and we dismissed it as old age. She began giving things away to people she really didn’t know. She had difficulty using words that were part of her regular vocabulary and would struggle to describe things. She had trouble putting on her makeup. Once, she even asked us if we would move a sofa to a corner of the room that it clearly wouldn’t have fit into. All of these were subtle and easy to dismiss. 

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You recently spoke about when you learned you carry the APOE4 gene, which increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. How have you adjusted your lifestyle and diet, and what changes would you recommend for someone at risk?

Genetics is complicated when it comes to diseases and there is no single gene that determines whether someone will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Science also tells us lifestyle choices matter even more. We know from research, for example, that weight impacts your risk for Alzheimer’s disease, especially weight around the middle. The larger the belly is, the smaller the memory center in the brain.

Eat your Omega-3s. You should get them from dark leafy greens, fatty fish like salmon, and nuts. And know your numbers, since high cholesterol and high blood sugar are also linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

However, diet is only one half of it — you must stay active as well. More experts are recommending high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT involves training in short bursts of really intense movement — such as sprinting — with rests in between the bursts. This form of exercise is associated with improved memory function. It is also a perfect exercise routine for right now because you can easily do a HIIT workout at home! Pair your HIIT workouts with meditation, which can lower stress and anxiety while protecting the part of the brain that’s affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

I also recommend that everybody begin taking Vitamin B12 supplements. B12 is actually responsible for removing a chemical — homocysteine — from your blood and that can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

What advancements in the Alzheimer’s research space are you excited about and give you hope?

There are a lot of exciting new therapies on the horizon. On my show last season, we looked at one that’s incredibly promising. It’s intranasal insulin; a spray that’s absorbed through the nose that appears to have positive effects on people with Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment. The research has found this nasal spray appears to positively affect memory function, especially in patients that have specific mutations to their APOE4 gene. 

If you’re wondering “why insulin?” that’s a great question. Some experts in the field of aging and neurology have started to refer to Alzheimer’s disease as type 3 diabetes, or a form of diabetes of the brain. This is because when your body doesn’t properly secrete insulin, it causes inflammation in the body. That inflammation can increase amyloid in the brain, which can build into a plaque that is found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Inhaling this very specific type of insulin could help prevent the brain inflammation that leads to this plaque buildup. 

The nasal spray is only one example of novel therapies researchers are developing to manage this disease. These are the kinds of innovations we need to help millions of people with cognitive impairment who still have a lot of living to do, just like my mom.

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