There is no absolute cure for Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline. Both naturopathic and conventional medical doctors are constantly trying to find effective treatments to prevent and cure these devastating diseases. Currently, more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s alone, and by 2050, that figure is expected to rise to 14 million.1 Much as there is no definitive cure, there is no definitive cause for these degenerative diseases that also include Lewy-Body disease, Parkinson’s disease and frontotemporal degeneration.
But fortunately, we do know a number of causes and some effective treatments.
Studies have suggested that one-third of dementia cases worldwide could potentially be prevented through better management of health and lifestyle factors.2 This is an area where naturopathic medicine excels. Naturopathic doctors (NDs) help prevent cognitive decline with therapeutic nutrition, behavioral medicine, botanical medicine and an emphasis on addressing the underlying causes of disease.3
Lifestyle Support Helps Prevent Cognitive Decline
While genetics may be one of the uncontrollable predisposing factors, food, exercise and overall health are problems that we all can tackle. NDs help support patients to obtain a healthy weight and physical fitness, decreasing the risk obesity, which has been shown to play in cognitive decline.4 NDs can prescribe supplements including curcumin, resveratrol and Bacopa monnieri as a way of boosting the immune system and optimizing brain health. Creating healthy sleep habits and reducing stress are also considered beneficial in the fight against decline, and NDs have an opportunity here too in the prevention of these degenerative conditions. Other research is supporting the use of a multifactorial, personalized approach to cognitive decline, which includes addressing the gut microbiome, heavy metal levels, neurotransmitters and mitochondrial health.5 Understanding a patient’s genetic predisposition helps in developing a personalized approach to treatment.
Yet, prevention is only part of the support naturopathic medicine can provide.
Listening to Patients Leads to Early Diagnosis
The Alzheimer’s Foundation reports that early and accurate diagnosis could save up to $7.9 trillion in medical and care costs.6 These facts are based on known data that shows that when caught early, the mental and physical decline can be slowed. Unfortunately, by the time most doctors see a patient, they have reached a moderate to severe stage of this illness—with moderate diagnosis experiencing the swiftest decline after identification.7 But why are so many cases diagnosed late?
Awareness of a patient matters when diagnosing inconsistencies in behavior. While conventional care appointments are often limited to 20 minutes, a naturopathic doctor typically spends between one to two hours on initial appointments and 30 to 60 minutes on subsequent appointments.8 In fact, just one in seven seniors (16 percent) receives regular cognitive assessments for problems with memory or thinking during routine health checkups, and only 47 percent of Primary Care Providers (PCPs) report that performing brief cognitive assessments for all patients age 65 or older is their standard protocol, according to the 2019 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report.9 NDs get to know their patients and have a better understanding of what behaviors are typical and which are inconsistent with behavior.
Another barrier to care involves gender. While women represent the majority of Alzheimer’s patients, they are frequently diagnosed later in the disease than the minority of male patients.10 Late diagnosis can prevent much-needed treatment to slow degeneration. A huge reason for this is standardized testing based on verbal memory, where even women with disease symptoms tend to score higher than men. Without observing the whole patient in mind, body and spirit, women may be able to present a false negative based on verbal tests alone.
Supportive Care as Decline Progresses
While certain functions are lost to these devastating diseases, there is still a person, a patient at the root of it all. While specifics may get lost, researchers believe that Alzheimer’s patients still have an emotional memory and benefit from visits from well-wishers and loved ones.11 Even when they may not remember details, all people can get lonely and dementia patients are just the same as anyone else in needing social interaction.12 Supportive ND care can help provide some of this social feedback.
Additionally, physical body health also matters. As specialists in patient-focused, unique care, NDs can help preserve physical ability and a feeling of physical well-being. NDs are great advocates for suggesting safe and gentle approaches to support whole patient health as well. An example could be a prescription for music therapy. University Health News reports that “Listening to music helps more than just memory. In patients with dementia, music therapy can help to decrease depression, anxiety and agitation, while improving cognitive function, quality of life, language skills and emotional well-being.”13 Another example is seen in the plant-based compound Yerba santa. A 2018 study by the Salk Institute indicates that sterubin derived from this botanical may have potent neuroprotective qualitites.14
It’s clear that cognitive decline is a huge problem in our communities. A devastating and degenerative illness, this condition affects millions of households in the U.S. alone. And while we can’t cure this problem yet, as NDs, we can provide preventive and supportive care. We are uniquely positioned to reach cognitive decline patients across every stage of this illness, working to improve daily health and happiness.
Michelle Simon, PhD, ND, President & CEO, Institute for Natural Medicine
In 1992, the leadership core of naturopathic doctors established the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM) as a not for profit organization dedicated to advancing natural medicine. The purpose of the INM is to increase awareness of, broaden public access to, and encourage research about natural medicine and therapies. Among its milestones the INM counts the launch of the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC) as an independent organization, leading California’s efforts to obtain licensure, developing an interactive childhood education program focused on healthy eating and lifestyles called Naturally Well in 2017, and expanding residency access by establishing and funding a residency program in 2018. INM has joined forces with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), serving as the charitable arm, to deepen access to naturopathic care, public education and research. Dr. Michelle Simon serves as president and CEO of INM, is a licensed naturopathic physician, clinician, educator, and leader in many organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of health care. In addition to holding a naturopathic doctorate from Bastyr University, she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Simon has served on the boards for the Integrative Healthcare Policy Consortium (IHPC), the AANP and the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI). Dr. Simon also served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee which is part of the Health Technology Assessment program that examines the scientific evidentiary basis for efficacy, safety and cost effectiveness of healthcare technologies. She was also an invited participant for health care economics at “Summit on Integrative Medicine and the Health of the Public” at the Institute for Medicine (IOM) in 2009. She was recognized as the 2018 Physician of the Year by the AANP.