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Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. (more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined), and it’s present in 1 and 3 seniors when they die. The number of Americans with AD is also expected to increase from the current 5 million to as high as 16 million by the year 2050. Unless alternative treatment methods are more thoroughly studied, tested, and utilized, the future impact of Alzheimer’s may be devastatingly widespread.
It seems like Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is almost always in the news. Recent AD news has been stressing the importance of morale for Alzheimer’s caregivers, as well as the crucial advent of alternative relief methods like deep brain stimulation, bilingual learning, vitamin compounds, and cannabinoids in treating the disease. As the public trust in traditional medicine continues to weaken, alternative treatment methods have expanded for a wide variety of serious diseases. Medical cannabis—in a broad range of forms—has seen a huge popularity increase in recent years. As the essential oil industry has grown, so has the demand for CBD oil as a viable alternative medicine. Here’s how CBD might be a viable alternative treatment option for Alzheimer’s patients.
What is Alzheimer’s and What Are Its Causes?
Alzheimer’s is—unfortunately—an incredibly common disease. Most of us know, or at least know of someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s, but we probably only have a vague idea of what the disease really is. What exactly is Alzheimer’s, and what are its varying symptoms and causes?
Alzheimer’s disease is actually the most common form of dementia, accounting for roughly two-thirds of dementia cases. The disease was named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist who worked on identifying the form of dementia with Dr. Emil Kraepelin. According to a 1983 TIME article, Alzheimer’s role in identifying the disease began when he noticed the peculiar appearance of a patient’s brain:
“His patient, a 51-year-old woman, suffered loss of memory, disorientation and later, severe dementia. After her death, Alzheimer conducted an autopsy on her brain and found the two distinctive characteristics of the disease: tangled clumps of nerve fibers and patches of disintegrated nerve-cell branches. Because Alzheimer’s patient was relatively young, AD was at first considered a disease of middle age; similar symptoms in elderly people were simply regarded as a natural consequence of aging. Today this view has been discarded.”
As the article indicates, Alzheimer’s wasn’t necessarily tied to age in the early days of its discovery. Today we seldom think of Alzheimer’s—or any form of dementia for that matter—without also thinking of old age. To that extent, some folks may still have the misconception that Alzheimer’s is a natural product of old age.
But if AD isn’t a byproduct of old age, what is the true nature of its relationship to advancing years? Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease, meaning it’s characterized by a slow-burning death of brain cells. In other words, age is a risk factor, not a cause of AD. Many observe the effects of aging in loved ones and wonder if they’re seeing the early signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s common for a person with a once-sharp mind to experience some forgetfulness, or even minor difficulty with memory in later years. The difference between the normal aging of a mind and Alzheimer’s can usually be characterized by noticeable intensity of symptoms, as well as sustained symptoms over time. Normal symptoms of aging include:
Contrast these symptoms with notable signs of Alzheimer’s:
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s may look similarly to that of normal aging, but they are much more extreme, even in their early or “mild” stages. The root cause of Alzheimer’s neurodegeneration remains largely unknown, though genetics and family history account for a large swath of cases.
Understanding the Stages of Alzheimer’s
Though manifestations of the disease vary from person to person, the symptoms and acceleration of Alzheimer’s tends to fall into seven distinct stages:
The seven-stage system was developed by Dr. Barry Reisberg, and has become the dominant clinical standard of diagnosis since its inception. There are other models of diagnosis out there, but Reisberg’s seven stages remains the most prominent.
Stage 1 is characterized by no visible memory loss or overtly detectable symptoms.
Stage 2 is typically where people have difficulty discerning between Alzheimer’s and normal signs of old age. A Stage 2 patient will probably experience short-term memory loss, mild vocabulary loss, and general forgetfulness. In Stage 2, Alzheimer’s cases still go largely undiagnosed.
Stage 3 is usually where Alzheimer’s symptoms become more apparent and diagnosable by a physician. More prominent loss of words or names, difficulty with daily tasks, misplacing important objects, and organizational problems are all visible Stage 3 behaviors.
In Stage 4, symptoms like frequent short-term memory loss, inability to perform simple arithmetic, difficulty performing money-related tasks like processing payments, early mood changes, and long-term memory loss are usually detectable by a clinical interview.
Going into Stage 5, difficulty with daily tasks diversifies and becomes more severe. Deeper arithmetic difficulties, suddenly not recognizing surroundings or time of day, forgetting one’s own address or direction home, and a decreased ability to dress oneself appropriately for the weather or a specific occasion are all present.
Stage 6 Alzheimer’s is where memory really starts to decline, as does the ability to perform most daily tasks. Personality changes become more stark, and long-term memory loss increases. Without extensive supervision, Stage 6 Alzheimer’s patients struggle to dress themselves or go to the bathroom. They also tend to wander and get lost much more frequently.
Once a patient reaches Stage 7, patients are typically no longer able to interact with other people in a normal way. They’re unable to communicate verbally, and may even lose control of their own movement. Physical symptoms include inability to freely sit or stand, muscle and reflex rigidity, and difficulty swallowing.
In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, the difference between AD and dementia are more apparent. The later symptoms of Alzheimer’s are much more specific than dementia. In fact, dementia is really a term for more generic memory loss symptoms present in multiple diseases, including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. Alzheimer’s is also a degenerative, irreversible illness, whereas some forms of dementia are treatable. If you or a loved one begin to experience early dementia symptoms, consult a physician before you assume that Alzheimer’s is the cause. It may be something far less serious, or the effects of an entirely different disease that needs to be diagnosed and treated immediately.
Alzheimer’s and the Endocannabinoid System
There may not be a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but a wide variety of treatments—both in and outside the realm of traditional medicine—have proven effective in alleviating certain symptoms, if only temporarily. Medications for early to moderate AD stages treat cognitive symptoms like memory loss and problem solving difficulty. These medications can’t reverse symptoms, but they can slow progression. Memantine—a medication for severe stages of Alzheimer’s—also slows the progression of memory and cognitive symptoms. These medications are not without their side effects (headaches, dizziness, and constipation) and obviously limited in how much relief they can provide.
When a disease has no cure, alternative remedies become a constant presence in the treatment process. This is certainly the case with Alzheimer’s. Until a cure is found, you’ll always find new alternative treatment methods being explored for AD.
For now, every mode of Alzheimer’s treatment is based on either slowing progression of the disease, or preventing it before it starts. When it comes to Alzheimer’s prevention, dietary options have become very popular. Avoiding cigarette smoking, seeking out foods with B and D vitamins, and incorporating other brain foods into one’s diet may go a long way in decreasing the chances of AD later in life. Sustained physical fitness is also thought to be an effective way to prevent Alzheimer’s.
Another intriguing development in the evolution of Alzheimer’s treatment is the influx of medical cannabis for brain-related illnesses. You may have heard of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a group of cell receptors and molecules found throughout the body. The endocannabinoid system’s name derives from its discovery through the use of cannabis compounds like cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Endocannabinoids are found everywhere from the to the gastrointestinal tract to the central nervous system, regulating the body by bringing it back to a state of homeostasis. This is why cannabis is thought to treat such a wide variety of illnesses. By making up for endocannabinoid deficiencies, cannabis may be able to alleviate symptoms of glaucoma, Parkinson’s, and even some types of cancer. When it comes to neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, cannabis may be able to treat symptoms through the endocannabinoids of the central nervous system.
Generally speaking, CBD is the cannabis compound with the most medicinal potential. THC has proven effective in treating certain illnesses when combined with CBD in a full cannabis strain, as have the terpenes found in marijuana. But in an isolated form, CBD has generally found the most success in treating the widest range of illnesses. Studies have shown CBD to be an effective neuroprotectant, providing extracerebral benefits and improving recovery from neural damage. For Alzheimer’s patients, the question is whether CBD’s neuroprotective properties extend into the realm of treating their most dominant neural and cerebral symptoms.
Treating Alzheimer’s with CBD
If you haven’t yet read or heard much about CBD, you may be wondering, how is it different from THC and what exactly makes it “more” medicinally valuable? CBD is the second most prominent cannabis compound, just behind THC. It’s non-psychoactive, and therefore absent of the “high” associated with THC-heavy marijuana. But non-psychoactivity isn’t the only reason for its medicinal value. CBD does not directly stimulate cannabinoid (CB1 and CB2) receptors, at least not in the same way that THC does. Instead, CBD activates other receptors with a wide range of remedial effects. CBD also reduces the psychoactive effects of THC while leaving some of THC’s medicinal benefits intact.
CBD’s new role in Alzheimer’s treatment hasn’t led to a cure (not yet anyway), but it may be incredibly effective in both prevention and the slowing of Alzheimer’s progression. Reversing the effects of Alzheimer’s is not yet a proven attribute of CBD, but it’s also not completely off the table. More research is needed to know for sure.
CBD is most commonly administered in the form of CBD hemp oil, an extract of high-CBD, low-THC hemp for high CBD concentration. When it comes to reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s, CBD oil may be effective in the same ways that it treats other brain and inflammatory disorders. CBD’s inflammatory properties in particular may prove helpful in preventing the spread of Alzheimer’s before it begins.
Slowing the Progression of Alzheimer’s
As we’ve already demonstrated, Alzheimer’s and dementia are not the same thing. However, CBD oil may be effective in slowing the progression of symptoms that Alzheimer’s and dementia have in common. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, further evidence is needed to separate the benefits of cannabis treatment from the risks:
“There is some interesting evidence at laboratory level that certain components of cannabis may be able to target the underlying processes behind dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. However, at present there is a lack of good quality evidence and understanding as to how cannabis use affects a person’s risk of dementia, or whether the drug can help to manage some of the symptoms of the condition. As cannabis use could negatively affect memory and thinking, particularly in heavy users, much more research needs to be done to tease apart any potential benefits and drawbacks.”
Based on this assessment, we might be able to assume that, while CBD oil has potential in slowing the progression of dementia symptoms, it is significantly more effective as a preventative measure. That being said, CBD oil is absent of the cannabis compounds that may affect Alzheimer’s patients adversely, so it doesn’t pose much in terms of negative side effects.
Though we still need more research to prove CBD a viable treatment option for Alzheimer’s patients, it’s certainly a low-risk alternative medicine worth trying on an individual basis. It has many of the same neuroprotective qualities as progression-slowing Alzheimer’s medications, and it may even reduce the risk of AD. If Alzheimer’s runs in your family, you may want to consider adding CBD oil to a regimen of preventative diet and exercise. CBD oil has a wide variety of medicinal benefits for milder conditions like headaches, nausea and sleep problems. Whether you or someone you know is currently experiencing Alzheimer’s, or runs a high risk of having it in the future, CBD oil is a low-risk alternative remedy worth trying.