Haims: Neurodegenerative diseases and inflammation
Two of the most common neurodegenerative diseases are Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Not only here in the United States, but also globally, these progressive debilitating diseases pose significant challenges to national and global health care systems. Data from the Alzheimer’s Association states that in 2022, “the estimated healthcare costs associated with AD treatment were $321 billion, with costs projected to exceed $1 trillion by 2050.” For Parkinson’s disease, the estimated total economic burden in 2019 was $52 billion, however, as this data is four years old, the current cost may be much greater.
These conditions are characterized by the progressive degeneration of neurons, leading to debilitating cognitive, motor, and functional impairments. While the exact causes of neurodegenerative diseases are unclear, research suggests that inflammation plays a critical role in their onset and progression.
In general, inflammation is good. However, when inflammation is bad, it’s very bad. Inflammation is good when it is the body’s response to tissue damage or the invasion of a harmful intruder like a toxin, bacteria, virus, or even a splinter. Inflammation is bad when it becomes chronic (long-term) and has the potential to lead to cause diseases like obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, blood vessel disease, heart disease, diabetes and asthma.
Chronic inflammation in the brain has been linked to the development and progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. As such, it has also been shown to impair cognitive function, memory, attention, and decision-making. In these conditions, prolonged inflammation triggers the release of toxic molecules that damage neurons, disrupt communication between brain cells, and contribute to the accumulation of abnormal proteins. Further, when toxic molecules continue to release inflammatory mediators for extended periods of time, neurodegeneration is perpetuated.
Studies have highlighted the role of misfolded proteins, such as beta-amyloid and tau protein in Alzheimer’s disease and alpha-synuclein in Parkinson’s disease, in activating immune cells and triggering an inflammatory response. This immune response is thought to play a significant role in the progression of these diseases. While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, there are several key aspects of immune cell activation.
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To remedy immune cell activation in these diseases, researchers are exploring various approaches. Some of the approaches finding successes include anti-inflammatory medications, protein aggregates, and gut-brain axis Interventions.
Anti-inflammatory medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or specific inhibitors of inflammatory pathways, are being studied to reduce the inflammatory response in the brain. These drugs aim to suppress the activation of immune cells and mitigate neuroinflammation.
Since abnormal protein aggregates play a role in immune activation, efforts are underway to develop therapies that can prevent or clear these aggregates. This approach includes immunotherapies that utilize antibodies or vaccines to target and remove alpha-synuclein aggregates, thereby reducing immune cell activation.
Evolving evidence suggests a connection between gut health and these diseases. Researchers are investigating interventions that target the gut microbiota, such as probiotics or fecal microbiota transplantation, to modulate immune responses and potentially alleviate symptoms.
There are also inflammation reduction approaches that can be done at home. One of the best countermeasures we can do to prevent or reduce chronic inflammation is exercise. Both observational studies and controlled trials have shown that exercise suppresses the production of proteins that have harmful effects on inflammation. Further, exercise increases the production of certain molecules that play an important role in inducing anti-inflammatory defense mechanisms.
The foods we choose to consume are also powerful tools in fighting inflammation. By choosing to avoid certain types of food and integrating others, people can make a profound difference in their ability to fend off chronic inflammation.
Some of the foods that combat inflammation include tomatoes, fruits (berries, oranges) olive oil, green leafy, vegetables (spinach, kale), nuts (almonds and walnuts), fatty fish (salmon, tuna,) omega-3 fatty acids; high-fiber foods; and foods high in zinc and magnesium.
Conversely, some of the foods that exacerbate inflammation are sugar, saturated fats (dairy, fatty meat), refined carbohydrates (fruit juices, pastries, white bread), and processed meats (sausage, deli meats high in sodium).
Researchers are making great strides in understanding inflammation. However, we too need to educate ourselves by learning about lifestyle choices that can both be harmful and helpful.
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. He is an advocate for our elderly and available to answer questions. His contact information is VisitingAngels.com/comtns and 970-328-5526.