One of the most frequent brain disease encountered by the neuropsychologist is Alzheimer's Disease. Ever-more common as baby-boomers age, Alzheimer's is a condition commonly thought of as a disease of the elderly. It presents with memory loss as the primary cognitive (thinking) symptom, along with changes in skills controlled by the right hemisphere (e.g., copying figures, reproducing designs with blocks), and personality alterations.
The causes of Alzheimer's have not been clearly identified, but it has generally been thought that there is a protein, amyloid, which sticks to nerve cells and leads to their death. At the same time, the brain produces less of a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine, which is critical for preservation of memory. Thus, as the amount of this substance decreases, memory fails.
While new theories are developed from time to time, one of the latest sees Alzheimer's as a diet-induced type of diabetes. This would imply that Alzheimer's is a metabolic disease in which the brain’s ability to use glucose and produce energy is impaired. A drug which causes this same pattern in rats resembles the nitrites found in many processed foods, particularly those high in fats. This might help to explain the increased presence of Alzheimer's in sedentary people with high cholesterol and blood sugar. The take-home message from this intriguing concept – get off the couch, exercise, watch your diet, and improve your physical and cognitive health.