Does Curcumin Use Help with Cognitive Dysfunction?

Recently, more and more patients have been adding curcumin or turmeric to their cooking to help with their memory. Curcumin is a metabolite of Turmeric and has been available in health food stores for years.

A study a few years back on Alzheimer’s patients published by J. Ringman and Associates showed no benefit in slowing the development of symptoms and no improvement in symptoms when supplied with curcumin. When they looked closely at their study, and analyzed the participant’s blood, they found that curcumin was not absorbed and never really entered the bloodstream.

Last month a study was published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry by Dr. Gary Small and colleagues. They looked at 40 patients with mild memory complaints aged 50 – 90.  Some were administered a placebo and others were administered nanoparticles of curcumin in a product called “Theracumin”. The participants were randomized and blinded to the product they were testing. The study designers felt the nanoparticles would be absorbed better than other products and would actually test whether this substance was helpful or not. At 18 months, memory improved in patients taking the nanoparticles of curcumin and they had less amyloid deposition in areas it usually found relating to Alzheimers Disease.

Robert Isaacson MD, the director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weil Cornell Medicine and New York- Presbyterian, has been suggesting his patients cook with curcumin for years. Until the development of the Theracumin nanoparticles, cooking with curcumin was the best way to have it absorbed after ingestion. There is now some evidence to suggest that curcumin, in this specific nanoparticle form, may play a role in both the risk reduction and potential therapeutic management of Alzheimers Disease.

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Exercise May Protect Against Memory Loss of Aging

Senior Citizens, exercise v2Dorothy Edwards, PhD of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and colleagues presented a study at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference this week that implies that physical exercise and activity slows down or prevents age related memory loss in patients considered high risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease or Minimal Cognitive Impairment. The data was presented in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine on line journal MedPage.

The study showed that the brain hippocampus was more resistant to the memory loss effects of aging in a population that had first degree relatives with dementia and who exercised aggressively. Past research has shown that physical exercise stimulates “neurogenesis “in the hippocampus.

Maria Carrillo, PhD, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association said, “We already know that exercise is important in terms of all sorts of health measures. Now it appears that over time, it also had benefits in preserving memory and other aspects of cognition, even in high risk people.”

The study of 317 patients is one more supporting piece of evidence that should be encouraging us all to get out and walk, cycle, swim, run and participate in whatever physical activities we find enjoyable to do. The health benefits are too important to ignore.

Medicare Will Never Be Able to Reduce the Cost of Care in the Last Three Months of Life

MedicareWe are frequently reminded by the General Accounting Office and CMS that a great proportion of Medicare health costs are incurred in the last three months of a patient’s life. Health care policy experts have tried to reduce these costs by encouraging end of life planning.  Living Wills, health care directives and the availability of hospice and palliative services will not put a dent in these costs because of human nature. I will provide some examples in the next few blogs.  Patient “L.J.” is my first example.

 I have a sweet 97 year old patient L.J., who lives in an upscale skilled nursing facility. He has a living will and a yellow “Do Not Resuscitate” sticker on his room door.  Three years ago he went into a severe depression after losing his second wife, to dementia.  His diabetes and chronic kidney disease have exacerbated because in addition to the natural progression of his diseases, he chooses not to take care of himself or follow instructions. His depression has been refractory to treatment despite the best efforts of two caring and experienced geriatric psychiatrists and their staffs.  He suffers from myelodysplasia and requires periodic blood transfusions to keep his blood count at a level that will keep him comfortable.

In recent months he has refused to be transported to an infusion center for his transfusions.  Despite his blood count dropping he remains comfortable, in no pain and able to participate successfully in those facility activities that he chooses to.   His nurse has become exceptionally attached to him.  As the patient’s health declines, despite being in no discomfort, the nurse is tortured by his decline. She calls and emails the out-of-state children and makes suggestions for additional care that the patient does not need or want.

Three months ago she suggested a palliative care consult.  I asked her “why” and questioned what services the palliative care team will provide that the patient is not already receiving or that he needs?  The children had demanded the palliative care consult so one was called. 

The local hospice program has a new palliative care program. They bill Medicare Part B for their services.  The palliative team arrived and wrote a consult that basically said there was nothing for them to do. They saw no need for their services. 

Three months later the same nurse contacted the family and said the patient needs Hospice care. I asked “why”?  She told me her mother had died of cancer and Hospice had been very helpful. I have no objections to working with Hospice and have over the years been a voluntary hospice medical director as well as referring many patients for end of life care. There is nothing for them to do at this point.  When the nurse contacted the out of state children they chose to “not leave any options on the table” and asked for Hospice to evaluate the patient. They did and billed Medicare Part B. They had nothing new to offer other than sending in a social worker and chaplain periodically to meet with the patient. Each time they visit the patient they bill Medicare Part B.

It is unclear if hospice is treating the floor nurse or the out of town children but they are certainly not adding anything to the patient’s care.   The taxpayers’ foot the bill as the system fails from expenses it cannot meet.

 

Today’s Seniors Are Not as Healthy as Their Parents

Baby Boomer Couple, cropped

In the online version of the Journal of the American Medical Association an analysis of data compiled by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey ( NHANES) suggested that today’s baby boomers are not as healthy as their parent’s generation. The baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, may live longer but they do so with more complaints and more chronic illnesses.  The study compared the two generations at ages 46 and 64 on several health measures using the years 2007- 2010 for the baby boomers and comparing it to data they had from 1988- 1994 for the prior generation.

The demographics in the two groups indicated a larger number of Hispanics and non-Hispanic Blacks in the baby boomer generation than the previous generation.  The data in many cases was self-reported with only half as many baby boomers 13% reporting their health as “excellent” while their parents’ generation had 32% respond excellent to the same question.  The baby boomers reported that more were using walking assisted devices, more were limited in work and more had functional limitations than their parents’ generation. As a group, obesity is more common in the baby boomers (39% vs. 29%), as is high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and diabetes.

The prior generation got more physical exercise than the baby boomers by a margin of 50% compared to 35% when asked if they were getting exercise at least 12 times per month. Smoking was more common in the prior generation.  The study authors concluded that we need to “expand efforts at prevention and healthy lifestyle promotion in the baby boomer generation.”

It is hard for me as a clinician to gain much insight from this data. Clearly the previous generation lived through a depression and fought two major wars. Their definition of “excellent” may be different than baby boomers whose expectations may be completely different from reality.

An epidemic of obesity has contributed to an increase in its associated diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure and lipid abnormalities. The goal of education and prevention is a wise one and needs to start in the preschools and elementary schools if we wish to be a healthier society

 

What’s New in Dementia, Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s Disease is a form of dementia and considered to be a progressive, fatal neurologic disease. Medications to slow it down are successful in about 50 % of patients for a very limited amount of time (6 -12 months).  As Baby Boomers age and move into the retirement sector, we are always looking for positive data regarding the disease to offset the expected epidemic of dementia.  We have a limited amount of good news to report.

Japanese researchers report that they have developed several types of contrast material for imaging studies which will allow doctors to see accumulating plaque in the brain and possibly the tangles of neurons associated with the disease at a much earlier stage.  At the same time researchers now claim to be able to do a spinal tap and, by examining the spinal fluid, make an earlier and more accurate diagnosis. At this point there might not yet be an advantage to early detection of the disease but as research proceeds it may become an important advantage.

The British Medical Journal is reporting that cognitive decline actually starts in midlife. They studied a mix of 7,300 men and women at five years intervals beginning in 1997 and found a decrease in intellectual functions beginning at 45 years old. They concluded that “what is good for our hearts is also good for our heads.”  They stressed the importance of controlling hypertension, obesity and abnormal cholesterol as a way to prevent dementia.

You might ask why I consider the fact that dementia begins in midlife a positive?  It’s a positive because we have the ability to control our weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and exercise level. Anytime a disease is modifiable by how we live our life we are given the chance to prevent it or limits its impact. This fact is supported by a recent study published in the Archives of Neurology looking at individuals with a genetic variant which predisposes them to develop Alzheimer’s Disease.  They found that older adults with the genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s Disease who exercised regularly, at or above the American Heart Association recommended levels, developed “amyloid deposits” on scans of their brain less than expected and in line with the general public who did not have a genetic predisposition to develop the disease.

These are small but positive steps in facing dementia. We can find it earlier and slow down or turn off genetic predisposition by living a healthy life.

Alzheimer’s Disease – Recent Data

Researcher’s gathered in Paris, France this month to present their data on new developments with Alzheimer’s disease.  In reviewing the meeting’s material, it is clear that much of what is “new” is old.

In the past we were taught that patients placed on medications for Alzheimer’s Disease would derive a benefit about 50% of the time. This benefit would last for six to twelve months.

One of the world’s authorities on this topic is Susan Rountree, M.D. of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.  She has followed 641 patients since the late 1980’s.  In 2008 she reported that patients treated with medicines such as donepezil (Aricept) and rivastigmine (Exelon) survived about three years longer than patients who did not take these medications.  She re-analyzed that data, updated it and came to the conclusion that “using anti-dementia drugs doesn’t seem to prolong survival.”   She did however recommend continuing their use because her data showed that patients taking them had improved cognition and ability to function.

At the Paris event there was material presented that was not surprising but needs the legitimacy of a well planned study to turn theory into scientific evidence and fact.

The study showing that military personnel who suffered traumatic brain injuries during the Vietnam War were more likely to develop dementia has great implications for today’s veterans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan where brain injuries are on the rise.  It will clearly help us as well in terms of long-term planning for the development of dementia in private citizens suffering from traumatic brain injuries.  It was not surprising either when certain medications were cited as being more likely to contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s Disease. This year’s culprits seem to be anticholinergic drugs which make a patient’s mouth dry and cause constipation.

What was not surprising were the studies that showed that elderly individuals who engaged in regular and vigorous physical exercise were less likely to develop cognitive impairment.  Those patients who get regular and vigorous exercise who show signs of cognitive problems declined at a slower rate than those who don’t.

While much of the material discussed confirmed the fact that healthy lifestyle is the best defense against this disease; there was also much hopeful discussion of research which is untangling the relationship between brain chemicals, development of plaques in the brain and its relationship to Alzheimer’s. On an encouraging note, we are much closer to early detection and therapeutic intervention than we were a decade ago.