(This is part of an ongoing diary as Ginger Sanders shares the emotional journey she is taking with her husband, John, as they discover his onset of Alzheimer’s. Over 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease; one in eight older Americans has it. Ginger and John Sanders did not expect to be among those statistics. Ginger’s touching story puts a real face and real name on the statistics and – she hopes – will help all of us understand what so many of our fellow Americans, loved ones and neighbors are going through.)
By Ginger Sanders
Special to KyForward
Before Feb. 1, I thought Alzheimer’s was an elderly disease, just older folks being forgetful. I never thought Alzheimer’s was dangerous or that it could affect middle-aged people. I was wrong.
Since John’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I have searched for information to help me understand this horrid disease and ways to combat it. We would do anything to delay or alleviate the effects. To better comprehend the elements of Alzheimer’s, I have researched how the disease occurs. Comprehending the why, what and how of Alzheimer’s is the first step in coping with it. It also helps in formulating poignant questions to ask our doctors.
There are about 4 million people with Alzheimer’s and the average time between diagnosis and death is eight years, although people can live with the illness 20 years or more. I hope the following is helpful.
About the human brain
(Info gathered from Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s Research Center, MySpouseandAlzheimers.com, WebMd.com, TheSlate.com, and Livestrong.com)
An adult brain weighs about 3 pounds and contains about 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, with branches that connect at more than 100 trillion points. Signals traveling through the neuron forest form the basis of memories, thoughts and feelings. Neurons are the chief type of cell destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.
Nerve cells connect to one another at synapses. When a charge reaches a synapse, it may trigger release of tiny bursts of chemicals called neurotransmitters. Alzheimer’s disease disrupts both the way electrical charges travel within cells and the activity of neurotransmitters.
The amount of cells, synapses and neurotransmitters in our brain is amazing. The brain’s 100 billion nerve cells, 100 trillion synapses, dozens of neurotransmitters create “strength in numbers” in providing the brain’s raw material. Over time, our experiences create patterns in signal type and strength. These patterns of activity explain how, at the cellular level, our brains code our thoughts, memories, skills and sense of who we are.
Alzheimer’s changes the entire brain
Alzheimer’s disease leads to nerve cell death and tissue loss throughout the brain. Over time, the brain shrinks dramatically, affecting nearly all its functions.
At left is another view of how massive cell loss physically changes the whole brain in advanced Alzheimer’s disease. This slide shows a crosswise “slice” through the middle of the brain between the ears. As cells die, they become empty pockets so the brain gets smaller and lighter.
In the Alzheimer’s brain:
• The cortex shrivels up, damaging areas involved in thinking, planning and remembering.
• Shrinkage is especially severe in the hippocampus (the back portion of the brain), an area of the cortex that plays a key role in formation of new memories.
• Ventricles (fluid-filled spaces within the brain) grow larger.
Scientists can also see the terrible effects of Alzheimer’s disease when they look at brain tissue under the microscope:
• Alzheimer’s tissue has many fewer nerve cells and synapses than a healthy brain.
• Plaques, abnormal clusters of protein fragments, build up between nerve cells.
• Dead and dying nerve cells contain tangles, which are made up of twisted strands of another protein.
Scientists are not absolutely sure what causes cell death and tissue loss in the Alzheimer’s brain, but plaques and tangles are prime suspects.
The danger of plaques:
Plaques form when protein pieces called beta-amyloid (BAY-tuh AM-uh-loyd) clump together. Beta-amyloid comes from a larger protein found in the fatty membrane surrounding nerve cells.
Beta-amyloid is chemically “sticky” and gradually builds up into plaques. The most damaging form of beta-amyloid may be groups of a few pieces rather than the plaques themselves. The small clumps may block cell-to-cell signaling at synapses. They may also activate immune system cells that trigger inflammation and devour disabled cells.
As I shared in one of my first columns, it is believed that virgin coconut oil helps in minimizing plague and tangles in the brain. We saw a remarkable difference in John’s memory and cognitive reasoning after a week of taking a virgin coconut oil daily. Needless to say, virgin coconut oil is a staple in our household, along with bee pollen.
What about tangles?
Tangles destroy a vital cell transport system made of proteins. This electron microscope picture shows a cell with some healthy areas and other areas where tangles are forming. You can see the empty space in where the tangles are forming.
In healthy areas:
The transport system is organized in orderly parallel strands somewhat like railroad tracks. Food molecules, cell parts and other key materials travel along the “tracks.”
• A protein called tau (rhymes with wow) helps the tracks stay straight.
In areas where tangles are forming:
• Tau collapses into twisted strands called tangles.
• The tracks can no longer stay straight. They fall apart and disintegrate.
• Nutrients and other essential supplies can no longer move through the cells, which eventually die.
Progression through the brain:
Plaques and tangles tend to spread through the cortex in a predictable pattern as Alzheimer’s disease progresses. The course of the disease depends in part on age at diagnosis and whether a person has other health conditions.
Earliest Alzheimer’s: Changes may begin 20 years or more before diagnosis.
Mild to moderate Alzheimer’s stages: Generally last from two to 10 years.
Severe Alzheimer’s: May last from one to five years.
If you are concerned that you are becoming more forgetful than normal, take the Mini Mental State examination.
Once diagnosed, do the following:
• Find a reputable Alzheimer’s clinical trial and enroll in it.
• Take your medication religiously.
• Perform physical exercise daily (it keeps the blood moving and makes you feel better).
• Eat organic foods as much as possible.
• Take 2 tablespoons of virgin coconut oil daily.
• Take 600mg DHA fish or algae oil daily.
• Read, do mental games.
• Stay active and interactive
• Voice your fears to a loved one.
• Get in touch with your spiritual link, whether with God and/or Jesus.
• Don’t wait on doing things you have always wanted to do.
• Appreciate every day and your loved ones.
• Find ways you can help others.
• My next column will detail each stage of Alzheimer’s and why it can be deadly.
Although Ginger is a vice president of sales for a renowned antimicrobial company (SAS Global Inc.), her main objective is to stymie the onslaught of Alzheimer’s on her husband, John. Ginger lives with her husband and three dogs on their farm in Lawrenceburg. A dedicated family person, she and her husband have 11 grandsons. Ginger Sanders is a transplant from South Carolina and a product of the University of South Carolina where she majored in the English Literature. She has taken on the fight of Alzheimer’s to win and help others as they struggle through the quagmire of this disease. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Read all of Ginger’s diary entries