Can Alzheimer's disease be prevented?
Scientists who are trying to answer that question say certain beverages, foods and exercise may hold the answer.
Dr. Philippe Marambaud, an Alzheimer's researcher at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, thinks the secret to a healthy brain lurks in wine. And he has embarked on an ambitious study to unlock the secret.
The Long Island effort grows out of a body of statistical studies, with roots in France, which have long shown that people who are moderate wine drinkers have a strikingly lower risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Red wines, Marambaud said, are suffused with an abundance of compounds called polyphenols, a family of plant chemicals that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, both of which have potent protective effects in the brain.
Marambaud, whose institute is affiliated with the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, believes the polyphenol that may help prevent Alzheimer's is called resveratrol. It is not only abundant in red grapes, it becomes greatly amplified in the production of red wines.
Working with lab animals, Marambaud has found that resveratrol dramatically diminishes a toxic protein that is central to the disease: beta amyloid. "This is a study we started several years ago. We published a paper showing that resveratrol is able to lower the peptide," Marambaud said, referring to the rogue protein.
"Resveratrol is concentrated in grapes, and mostly in the skin of the grape because it may serve as a protective agent against infection of the plant." The compound is also found in other berry fruits, a host of vegetables and peanuts.
Marambaud, however, opposes increasing wine consumption to stave off Alzheimer's. He hopes eventually to exploit the red wine compound into a drug.
But Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a Long Island native who's now a Southern California neurologist, says rather than waiting for a drug, there are steps people can take now to keep the disease at bay.
Fortanasce is the author of the best-selling book, "The Anti-Alzheimer's Prescription." In it, he outlines what he calls a brain-healthy diet rich in fish because of the presence of omega-3 fatty acids. Other food sources he thinks are important in the prevention of Alzheimer's include nuts, green leafy vegetables, berries, especially blueberries. Fortanasce also promotes the practice of getting at least eight hours of sleep and avoiding stress.
"I realized in my practice that doctors, lawyers and policemen were the most likely professionals to get Alzheimer's. Three of my colleagues, three of the guys I grew up with in medicine, have all been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. And what all of these professions have in common is sleeplessness and uncontrolled stress.
"Margaret Thatcher has come down with Alzheimer's," Fortanasce added, "and she used to brag that she only got only four hours of sleep."
Lisa Mosconi, an Alzheimer's researcher at NYU School of Medicine, emphasizes not only the importance of omega-3 fatty acids, but daily exercise. She believes that measures outlined to prevent heart disease may help ward off Alzheimer's.
"We know that when we exercise, we get better overall oxygen function, and we know that through exercise more oxygen reaches the brain," Mosconi said.
Critics, however, say Alzheimer's has affected world-class athletes. Dr. Peter Davies, a world renowned Alzheimer's researcher at the Feinstein Institute, said dietary changes probably will not provide a path to prevention.
"We see the disease worldwide," Davies said. "The Japanese have a significant problem with it and their diet is completely different," he said, adding it is abundant in fish.