Alzheimer's

Reporter: Mark Gibson

The figures are frightening. Almost 40 million people worldwide are living with dementia; the vast majority of them have Alzheimer's disease.

In Australia, it's 300 thousand. And growing.

In a moment, the super foods that feed the brain. And starve Alzheimer's. But first, the revolutionary brain scan that can reveal if someone will get the disease, up to twenty years before symptoms appear.

Pam Voysey has been injected with a radioactive tracer. An hour and a half later, she slides into the PET/CT scanner, which will capture images of her brain.

Pam is 63. Her 90 year old mother, Audrey, has Alzheimer's. Pam wants to know if she'll get it too.

"This PET camera basically is the only one of its kind in Australia so it's the most efficient camera for taking a screen of the brain. "Professor Ralph Martins from the McCusker Alzheimer's Research Foundation shows Pam what they're looking for.

This is the brain of an Alzheimer's patient. The orange dots are the bad guys - the amyloid, which causes the disease.

For almost a century, Alzheimer's could only be diagnosed after someone had died. Now, researchers know that large amounts of amyloid will be visible on the brain, up to twenty years before symptoms appear. So people like Pam Voysey can discover their future.

Ralph says "And that's placed Australia at the forefront internationally in terms of this early diagnosis, so this is critical. This is where we can now look at state of the art drugs that will bring down the amyloid and basically prevent the onset of Alzheimer's."

Shortly, Pam will be told her results. On the one hand she wants to know. "Then on the next time I think about it I think oh what the heck, I should just go and eat and drink more and just die of a heart attack instead because it is a horrible disease."

After the age of 60, we all lose around one per cent of brain cells per year. In Alzheimer's patients, the brain shrinks by three per cent a year. The key for researchers is finding ways to stop the shrinking.

Ralph says "The really exciting thing is that we now have the capabilities of picking up Alzheimer's early."

There's no cure, but it's not all bad news, the onset can be delayed and symptoms improved.

"We now can understand a lot about lifestyle and what we found; our team here in Western Australia has basically shown that physical activity can have a huge impact on lowering the amyloid in the brain."

Professor Martins' number one tip for avoiding Alzheimer's is exercise. Closely followed by diet. "If you keep your cholesterol down, that will have a huge impact on the amyloid that builds up on your brain, so we know for example that if people eat high fat diets, saturated fat diets, we see a rise in amyloid levels."

"The latest research indicates that these are the best foods for lowering your risk of Alzheimer's. Fish, fruit and vegetables, green tea, with its anti-oxidants, red wine in moderation is good and this is the latest discovery - curcumin, which is the active ingredient in turmeric.

Professor Ralph says "It's been known for many years, several hundreds of years in India, to be playing a very important role in healing, it's a very powerful anti-inflammatory agent, but what's been clearly shown in animal studies, it markedly lowers amyloid."

Avoiding foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, could also help starve off the disease. People with type two diabetes are especially at risk. "They seem to have a high risk of developing either vascular dementia or Alzheimer's disease and a lot of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes are clearly being linked now to Alzheimer's disease." Other things to avoid are too much red meat, excessive alcohol and smoking, with scientists also discovering a link in risk factors between Alzheimer's and heart disease. "What's good for your heart is good for your brain, so whatever the Heart Foundation tells you has a huge application to keeping your brain healthy."

Pam Voysey is spending precious time with her 90 year old Mum, Audrey. Pam clearly remembers the car trip 7 years ago that changed everything. "On the way up there she asked me 4 times how I knew the person whose house we were going to and on the way back she asked me again about another 4 or 5 times and it was obvious to me there was something going on, she'd never ever been like that before."

Audrey Gribble had been a physically active, healthy eater. At 83, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. But Audrey can still read. This is a poem she wrote several years ago.

"I'm glad I lived when lamps gave light and fires and candles lit the night.

I'm glad I lived and children raised to give a reason to my days.

I lived in this fair land that's here for me, my days were planned.

Most of all I'm glad I lived at the exact moment that I did."

Pam says "But you ask her what she did 2 minutes ago she can't remember a thing, nothing, doesn't know where she's living, nothing. How said is it for you to watch that? I hate it, absolutely hate it."

A few weeks later, it's time for Pam to get her results. At 63, she's about to find out if she's headed the same way as her mother. Pam has bravely allowed our cameras to be there, as Professor Ralph Martins tells her there's good news and bad news.

In some ways, it's the news Pam was dreading. But it means she can do something about it. Which gets us back to those tips, of exercise and diet. Professor Ralph says "Diet is critical, physical activity is important, mental stimulation, no smoking and sleep well."

Audrey returns to the nursing home she now lives in. Alzheimer's has taken hold. Am says "I think the light's still on for Mum, the memory's gone but she's still my Mum, she's still able to talk to me, she's still got a sense of humour."

For Pam, it's all about early intervention. "I'm glad I know, I know that I can do something and it's my own fault if I don't do it isn't it? That's right, that's true"

 

Further Details

www.alzheimers.com.au