A friend sent me a tantalizing press release concerning a study run by UCLA and the Buck Institute, which claims that a “Small trial by UCLA and Buck Institute succeeds using ‘systems approach’ to memory disorders.” (Note direct quotes from the press release will appear here in italics.)
Wow, a cure for memory disorder! In amazement, I stop reading.
So has UCLA had the major breakthrough we’ve all been waiting for and were told was years away?
And what is a systems approach?
I start reading again until I understand that what was involved was a “36-point therapeutic program that involves comprehensive diet changes, brain stimulation, exercise, sleep optimization, specific pharmaceuticals and vitamins, and multiple additional steps that affect brain chemistry.” This program was devised by Dr. Dale Bredesen of the UCLA Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging.
The real science involved here sounds controversial and is far beyond my ability to analyze. Most of us have been told that Alzheimer’s is caused by sticky plaque build up in the brain but Dr. Bredesen conducted a study that found “that Alzheimer’s stems from an imbalance in nerve cell signaling.” Therefore Bredesen says that “a broader-based therapeutic approach, rather than a single drug that aims at a single target, may be feasible and potentially more effective for the treatment of cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s.”
And golly, 90% of those in the USCLA study “displayed subjective or objective improvement in their memories beginning within three to six months.”
A problem is that that there were only ten patients in the study. Having just read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I am hypersensitive to misleading studies in general and studies with overly small pools of participants in particular. Ten patients is a pretty small pool.
Then there are the “patients” themselves as described in the press release:
Patient 1 had two years of progressive memory loss. She was considering quitting her job, which involved analyzing data and writing reports, she got disoriented driving, and she mixed up the names of her pets.
Patient 2 kept forgetting once-familiar faces at work, forgot his gym locker combination and had to have his assistants constantly remind him of his work schedule.
Patient 3’s memory was so bad that she used an iPad to record everything, then forgot her password.
These three patients sound like Ralph at least five years ago, back when we were still joking about his memory slips. Actually they sound a lot like me right now.
Basically the pool was made up of “patients with memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease, amnestic mild cognitive impairment or subjective cognitive impairment (in which the patient reports cognitive problems.” No surprise that the “One patient who had been diagnosed with late stage Alzheimer’s did not improve.”
But still, that most did improve is good news.
The bigger problem for me is the breadth and intensity of demands from participants (and those who care for them). Bredesen’s program requirements include:
- eliminating all simple carbohydrates, gluten and processed food from her diet, and eating more vegetables, fruits and non-farmed fish
- meditating twice a day and beginning yoga to reduce stress
- sleeping seven to eight hours per night, up from four to five
- taking melatonin, methylcobalamin, vitamin D3, fish oil and coenzyme Q10 each day
- optimizing oral hygiene using an electric flosser and electric toothbrush
- reinstating hormone replacement therapy, which had previously been discontinued
- fasting for a minimum of 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, and for a minimum of three hours between dinner and bedtime
- exercising for a minimum of 30 minutes, four to six days per week
Bredesen said the program’s downsides are its complexity and that the burden falls on patients and caregivers to follow it. In the study, none of the patients was able to stick to the entire protocol. Their most common complaints were the diet and lifestyle changes, and having to take multiple pills each day.
The good news, though, said Bredesen, are the side effects: “It is noteworthy that the major side effects of this therapeutic system are improved health and an improved body mass index, a stark contrast to the side effects of many drugs.”
Just reading this explanation exhausted me. Call me lazy, call me selfish, but I can’t see Ralph and me signing up for this regimen any time soon.