Herbs for Alzheimer's

| June/July 2002

  • Lemon balm has been found to have some effect on the enzyme thought to play a part in the development of Alzheimer's.

It starts with a seemingly natural forgetfulness—short-term memory lapses that are barely noticeable, even to friends and family. As it progresses, the memory fades away completely, like a ship heading out to sea, becoming engulfed by fog. A childlike mentality takes over, and a loss of control over functions such as talking and walking begins. Depression, delusions, and hallucinations may become part of the new life of a once happy, mentally astute human being.

So it goes with Alzheimer’s disease, a degeneration of brain cells that leads to deteriorating mental abilities. Named for Alois Alzheimer, the German neurologist who identified it in 1907, the disease tends to strike people older than age sixty-five, although it can occur in people much younger. According to the National Institute on Aging, about four million Americans have the disease, and about half of all people who live beyond age eighty-five will be afflicted.

Alzheimer’s is not an inevitable part of aging, but its cause has not been conclusively determined. Many believe that it is linked to the destruction of acetylcholine, a chemical that helps transmit nerve impulses in the brain. Other possible causes include genetic factors, exposure to toxins, abnormal protein production, viruses, and abnormalities in the barrier between the blood and the brain.

One method used to treat Alzheimer’s patients is to try to increase their levels of acetylcholine to stave off progression of the disease and slow memory loss. This method focuses on an enzyme known as anticholinesterase, which prevents another enzyme, cholinesterase, from destroying acetylcholine. In the United States, the drug tacrine is approved for this use. However, tacrine can have serious side effects, including liver damage.

Recent preliminary research shows that some herbs—including many members of the mint family, such as sage, rosemary, and balm—also hold potential for keeping Alzheimer’s at bay. This research is new, as the word preliminary implies, but points to promising inroads into treatments for this devastating disease.

Alzheimer's Defined

Alzheimer's is progressive degenerative disease of cells in the brain, where it may show up as "senile" plaques or lesions. It is the most common cause of dementia, widespread cerebral damage that manifests in a variety of symptoms, including memory loss, disorientation, restlessness, impaired judgment, and irritability.

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