Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease share many things in common. Both conditions develop slowly over a number of years. Both tend to strike late in life. And both are currently incurable.
Parkinson’s disease is caused by the gradual death of specific brain cells that produce the chemical dopamine. Patients with Parkinson’s are often prescribed medications that increase the amount or effectiveness of dopamine in the brain, and these medications can relieve the motor symptoms associated with the disease.
But, as our science feature about Parkinson’s disease explains, there’s a tradeoff: these drugs may cause serious cognitive side effects, including -- in some people -- devastating behavioral addictions such as gambling or overeating. Understanding why these side effects occur in some patients but not others is a major question that must be answered, so that new treatments can be developed that avoid these side effects.
In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the immediate cause of the disorder is less well understood. As a result, it has been hard to develop effective treatments. Right now, the medications commonly used to treat Alzheimer’s disease can temporarily mask the symptoms, but don’t address -- or reverse -- the underlying causes
But there is some good news. As our story "Pumping Neurons" explains, there is mounting evidence that we can all make some lifestyle choices that greatly reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s. One important area is aerobic exercise: In addition to promoting heart health and other benefits, it now appears that people who exercise regularly have reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Even a relatively modest amount of exercise a few times a week can have a big impact.
Other data are emerging to show that a healthy diet -- particularly one low in LDL or “bad” cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables, and fatty fish -- can help too. And as we explained in a previous issue (“Use it or lose it”), cognitive activity -- anything that challenges you to think and to learn -- may be a third factor to help keep the brain strong and healthy.
We all hope that, someday soon, a cure for Alzheimer’s will be found. In the meantime, the best offense may be a good defense: Healthy choices for diet, exercise, and cognitive activity may help many of us increase our odds of facing a future free of Alzheimer’s.
Catherine E. Myers, Ph.D.
Senior Editor, Memory Loss & the Brain