The link to healthy diets and brain health is well established. The link to diet and Alzheimer’s disease is less clearly established, but new information on curcumin (found in turmeric) may prove to be helpful.
The brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage due to its high rate of metabolism and long-lived neurons. Free radicals are reactive molecules that can cause oxidative damage to important cellular components such as DNA, or the cell membrane. Cells may function poorly or die if there is too much oxidative damage.
Antioxidants defend the cells from free radical damage. Many long term studies have demonstrated that those with higher antioxidants in their diets from fruits, vegetables and certain spices have slower rates of cognitive decline than those who ate less.
Curcumin has been studied recently because of the low rates of Alzheimer’s disease in India. The Indian population consumes large amounts of curcumin and have a relatively low (4 times less) incidence of Alzheimer’s disease compared to the U.S. population.
Curcumin is a member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) and the main ingredient of turmeric, a bright yellow spice used in curry and many other Middle Eastern dishes. An antioxidant with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin prevents the damage cause by free radicals. The more antioxidants in the diet, the more the cells are protected.
The National Institutes of Health and other research organizations have been completing Alzheimer’s clinical trials. Recently, curcumin has been in the forefront of much of this research. Curcumin’s powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties suppress the buildup of beta-amyloid in brain tissue.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) studied mice and found that curcumin crosses the blood-brain barrier to bind with beta-amyloid peptides. These peptides are dangerous when they build up into plaques.
As Alzheimer’s disease develops, neurons go through a process from a healthy state, to some loss of molecular efficiency, to a loss of synaptic function, to loss of synapses, and, ultimately, to cell death. When curcumin was fed to aged mice, there was a reduction in amyloid levels and the overall amount of dangerous plaque.
More studies are needed to investigate the safety and tolerability of curcumin in the elderly population. Research is also needed in the areas of using curcumin to prevent Alzheimer’s disease as well as to lesson symptoms.
As clinical trials produce more information about the efficacy of curcumin, guidelines will be established for those at risk and for those affected.