New Delhi, Sep 21


n a world where the elderly population is rapidly growing, one of the most pressing health concerns is Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's, a form of dementia, robs individuals of their memory, cognitive abilities, and ultimately their quality of life.

While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, recent research has shed light on potential ways to delay its onset and manage its symptoms.

Furthermore, there is a remarkable connection between the social nature of elephants and the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, offering valuable lessons for human health.

The global Alzheimer's epidemic

Alzheimer's disease, characterised by memory loss, impaired reasoning, and language difficulties, affects over 44 million people worldwide.

Alzheimer's is responsible for 60-80 p;er cent of dementia cases across the globe, making it the most common cause of this cognitive decline. Despite extensive research, there is still no cure for Alzheimer's, but there are treatments that can slow its progression.

Alzheimer's epidemic in India

Alzheimer's disease affects nearly five million Indians, and this number is projected to triple by 2050. The country's aging population is a significant factor in this increase, with the elderly population expected to reach 19.5 per cent of the total population by 2050. However, Alzheimer's prevalence in India is not uniform, with varying rates in different regions.

Regional variations in Alzheimer's prevalence

One intriguing observation in India is the significant variation in Alzheimer's prevalence between different regions. For instance, the rural community of Ballabgarh in north India reported an exceptionally low Alzheimer's prevalence of 1.07 per cent in 1998, with incidence rates also significantly lower than other parts of the country. Researchers attribute this phenomenon to the reduced stress levels in the physically active farming community, suggesting a connection between lifestyle and Alzheimer's risk.

In contrast, the incidence rates of Alzheimer's disease in Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir and Odisha is alarming, with Jammu and Kashmir having 11 per cent.

A study in Thrissur district of Kerala revealed a prevalence of 32.7 per 1000 persons, highlighting regional disparities in Alzheimer's prevalence within India.

Pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches to Alzheimer's

Pharmacological treatments for Alzheimer's focus on symptom management rather than halting the disease's progression.

Medications can provide temporary relief from memory loss and cognitive decline but are not universally effective. Non-pharmacological interventions, on the other hand, offer various ways to support individuals with Alzheimer's and their caregivers.

Behavioral therapy, cognitive stimulation, social engagement, and activities that promote mental and emotional well-being can help delay cognitive decline. These non-pharmacological approaches, often referred to as cognitive behavioral therapies, are recommended before resorting to strong drugs, such as antipsychotics.

Lifestyle changes, including regular exercise and a balanced diet, are also believed to play a role in maintaining cognitive health. Some studies have linked Alzheimer's to lifestyle-related risk factors such as physical inactivity, obesity, and unhealthy diets. While the scientific evidence on the direct impact of lifestyle choices on Alzheimer's is mixed, adopting a healthy lifestyle can contribute to overall well-being.

Alternative treatments for Alzheimer's

Given the limitations of current Alzheimer's treatments, researchers are exploring alternative therapies to manage the disease more effectively.

Traditional medicine, including the use of herbs and medicinal plants, has long been used to address memory deficits. While the exact mechanisms are not always clear, some natural products like polyphenols, alkaloids, and terpenes have shown promise in modulating disease pathways associated with Alzheimer's.

One remarkable natural remedy is curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. Curcumin has demonstrated cognitive benefits in Alzheimer's patients, with some studies suggesting it can slow the progression of the disease. It is also speculated that curcumin consumption contributes to the lower prevalence of Alzheimer's in rural areas of India.

The Elephant connection A lesson in memory

Elephants, known for their incredible size and social complexity, have captured our fascination for centuries. Beyond their physical attributes, elephants possess remarkable cognitive abilities and exhibit behaviours that mirror some aspects of human social interaction.

One of the most striking findings related to elephants is their apparent resistance to Alzheimer's-like brain changes. Researchers have observed a lack of amyloid plaque buildup, a hallmark of Alzheimer's, in elderly elephant brains. This absence of plaque is believed to be linked to their strong social bonds within herds, suggesting that social connections play a role in protecting cognitive function.

Elephants have brains that are four times the size of human brains, with 257 billion neurons compared to our 100 billion. This size and complexity likely contribute to their exceptional memories. Studies have shown that elephants can remember individuals they met briefly 23 years ago, a feat that even humans would find challenging.

Lessons from elephants for Alzheimer's prevention

Elephants' ability to maintain cognitive health throughout their lives offers valuable insights into Alzheimer's prevention for humans. Here are some key takeaways

Social connections Just as elephants benefit from strong social bonds within their herds, maintaining social connections is crucial for human cognitive health. Frequent social activities have been linked to better cognitive function, making it essential for the elderly to stay socially engaged.

Physical and mental activity Both elephants and humans benefit from cognitive stimulation and mental activity. Activities like reading, solving puzzles, and engaging in social interactions help keep the brain active and delay cognitive decline.

Healthy lifestyle Adopting a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise and a balanced diet, can play a role in preserving cognitive function. Avoiding lifestyle-related risk factors such as physical inactivity and unhealthy diets may reduce Alzheimer's risk.

Natural remedies While there is ongoing research into natural remedies like curcumin, it is essential to consult with healthcare professionals before making significant dietary changes or taking supplements.

Environmental considerations Reducing exposure to toxic chemicals and creating a healthier living environment may contribute to better neurological function.

Alternative therapies Exploring alternative therapies, such as traditional herbal medicine and acupuncture, can complement existing treatments and improve the quality of life for Alzheimer's patients.

In conclusion, Alzheimer's disease is a growing global concern, particularly in aging populations like India. While there is no cure, there are strategies to delay its onset and manage its symptoms.

The remarkable memory abilities of elephants provide a unique perspective on the role of social connections in preserving cognitive health. By learning from nature's giants, we can take steps to reduce the impact of Alzheimer's disease and improve the quality of life for those affected by it.

(The writer is Director and Head, Health & Advocacy, Consocia Advisory)

The link between elephants and Alzheimer's: Insights from nature's giants

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