CBD In the Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease

According to the National Institute of Aging, Alzheimer’s disease is “an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.” Most people experience their first symptoms in their mid-60s, although in very rare cases symptoms can start manifesting from a person’s 30s and 40s.

There has been some evidence to suggest that cannabinoids such as CBD may help to reduce so-called amyloid plaques, one of the major contributors to Alzheimer’s, and also protect neurons in the brain in other ways.

Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s Disease was named after the German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, who first noticed the changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of a previously unheard of mental illness in 1906. Symptoms of her disease included memory loss, loss of cognitive abilities, and severe mood swings. Examination revealed that her brain was riddled with abnormal clumps (amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (neurofibrillary, or tau tangles).

In addition to the plaques and tangles, Alzheimer’s features the loss of communication between brain neurons and damage to the hippocampus. In the final stages of Alzheimer’s, brain tissue has shrunk significantly. The disease is irreversible and untreatable, however, there are ways in which its development can be delayed.

How Many People Suffer From Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among seniors. According to data obtained by the National Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5.5 million US citizens of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease. Approximately 5.3 million of them are aged 65 and older, meaning that nearly 200,000 patients have early-onset Alzheimer’s.

10% of people aged 65 and over have Alzheimer’s disease. The condition seems to affect mostly women (two-thirds of patients are women) and black seniors, who are twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s than white seniors. Hispanic seniors are 1.5x as likely to have the disease as white seniors.

As the average life expectancy in the US rises, the number of people aged 65 or older is expected to soar, along with the number of Alzheimer’s patients. The Alzheimer Association claims that today, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease every 66 seconds. This rate is expected to rise two-fold by 2050, with someone in the United States will develop the disease every 33 seconds (assuming no advancements are made by then).

Alzheimer’s is also one of the most costly diseases, as people who suffer from it cannot take care of themselves. The Alzheimer’s Association claims that in 2016, 15.9 million family and friends provided 18.2 billion hours of unpaid assistance to Alzheimer’s patients. This contribution cost the nation approximately $230.1 billion.

The healthcare costs associated with Alzheimer’s patients or other dementias are also very high, amounting for a $259 billion in payments in 2017. People suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia spend twice as much time in hospitals on average as other senior individuals.

What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease

There is no definite answer as to what causes Alzheimer’s disease for the majority of people. Scientists believe that it is a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that can trigger the disease. In about 5% of cases, Alzheimer’s is caused by very specific genetic mutations that guarantee a person will develop the condition.

Even though the causes of the disease are unclear, its effect is very much visible on the brain. Alzheimer’s degrades and kills brain cells and their connections. As more brain cells die off, the brain shrinks and more plaques and threads of tau protein are visible. This rapid decay of the brain is what usually causes failure and death.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

According to Mayo Clinic, early Alzheimer’s symptoms involve forgetfulness and confusion. However, the disease quickly develops, causing far more problems than a mild annoyance to the immediate environment of the patient.

Brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease lead to memory loss and cognitive decline.

Memory loss

Everyone has occasional memory lapses. It’s normal to lose track of where you put your keys or forget the name of an acquaintance. But the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease persists and worsens, affecting a patient’s ability to function at work and at home.

Patients that have early occurrences of Alzheimer’s may:

  • Repeat questions over and over, forgetting the answers
  • Forget conversations and appointments
  • Misplacing possessions and putting them in unreasonable places
  • Get lost, even in familiar places
  • Forget the names of close family
  • Lack the cognitive ability to take part in conversations

Thinking and reasoning

Alzheimer’s disease can cause difficulty completing rudimentary cognitive tasks or even concentrate on a task. Overall, an individual’s personality is altered, with patients often developing some, or all, of the following traits:

  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Mood swings
  • Distrust in others
  • Irritability and aggressiveness
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Wandering
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Delusions, such as believing something has been stolen

Furthermore, Alzheimer’s patients might find it difficult to multitask, respond to everyday problems, or plan ahead. Eventually, if the patient reaches the late stages of the disease, they lose the ability to read, dance, sing or engage in conversation. Skills and habits learned earlier in life are usually the last ones to be lost.

How is Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosed

According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s cannot be definitively diagnosed until after the death of the patient, by linking clinical measures with an examination of brain tissue in an autopsy. However, doctors have several methods to help them determine if a person who has memory problems has “possible” or “probable” Alzheimer’s dementia.

There are some standard steps doctors may follow in order to diagnose Alzheimer’s:

  • Questions about the overall health, use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines, diet, past medical problems, and cognitive abilities;
  • Conducting memory and problem-solving tests;
  • Standard procedure examination, to rule out other possible causes;
  • Brain scans, such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET).

These tests must be conducted over a period of time (every 6-12 months), to give the doctors the necessary information about the changes in the patient’s memory and cognitive functions. In many cases, they discover different problems like strokes, tumors, Parkinson’s disease, or a non-Alzheimer’s dementia. Contrary to Alzheimer’s, many of these conditions are reversible.

How Harmful Is Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease usually shortens the lifespan of the patient but does not directly cause death, according to the British charity for people with dementia Alzheimer’s Society. It is, however, closely connected to several complications, such as infections or blood clots.

In later stages, patients may have problems performing basic motor functions such as swallowing, leading to aspiration pneumonia. According to Dr. Marc Gordon, chief of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Queens, New York, pneumonia is listed as the leading cause of death in as many as two-thirds of deaths of patients with dementia. Also, people might eventually lose the ability to walk, dramatically increasing the risk of fatal blood clot development, Gordon says.

The National Institute on Aging suggests that people that suffer from Alzheimer’s are more susceptible to infections, as the weight loss caused by the disease leads to a weakened immune system. Overall, Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the US, according to the CDC, and fifth most prevalent for people over 65.

How Is Alzheimer’s Disease Treated

Currently, there is no cure for the disease or any drug that can stop Alzheimer’s from developing. There are, however, several methods of delaying the spread of the disease in the brain and ensure a better quality of life for the patients.

Drugs

Available medications for Alzheimer’s can help with the memory and cognitive changes for a limited period of time. There are two major types of drugs that are used in Alzheimer’s treatment.

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors, which work by boosting brain cell communication and improve neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as irritability or depression as well
  • Memantine (Namenda), a drug that works in another brain cell communication network and can delay the progression of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s

Creating a Safe Environment

An Alzheimer’s patient demands a lot of constant and unwavering attention. This can quickly add strain to their immediate environment, so adapting the living situation of a patient according to their needs is very important. Encouraging routine habits and minimizing demanding tasks can be very helpful for seniors who suffer from the disease.

Exercise

Exercise is important to all individuals and Alzheimer’s patients are especially prone to muscle and neurological conditions. Daily activities can improve their mood and maintain their health.

Nutrition

Alzheimer’s patients often have trouble eating healthy meals or even eating at all. They might forget to drink enough water, leading to dehydration. They should be constantly provided with high-calorie and healthy meals, as well as generous amounts of caffeine-free liquids.

How Does CBD Help Treat Alzheimer’s Disease

Cannabis active compounds target the human endocannabinoid system, which is comprised of CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are mainly found throughout the brain and the hippocampus, while the CB2 receptors are found on immune cells. The endocannabinoid system is involved in many body functions, such as memory function, appetite regulation, and response to pain.

We know that the hippocampus is susceptible to many of the causes of Alzheimer’s and can be severely damaged as the disease develops. Also, studies have combined this knowledge with evidence that the specialized immune cells which contain the CB2 receptors play a major role in the development of Alzheimer’s. Studies have found that people with Alzheimer’s disease have an increased number of CB2 receptors in their brains.

Early laboratory settings suggested that some cannabinoids could have an effect on some of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, although nothing has been proven as of yet.

Can cannabis prevent or treat dementia?

There has been some research on the connection of cannabis with Alzheimer’s major effects. For example, there has been some evidence that cannabinoids seem to remove amyloid clumps from lab-grown nerve cells. Also, lab testing in mice that were administered cannabinoids found that the test subjects showed less evidence of amyloid clumps in their bodies. In other studies, researchers have been exploring the CB2 receptor as a possible controlling factor for the activity of immune cells, preventing their harmful over-activation.

Despite the encouraging signs, there are no studies that have looked into the effects of cannabinoids on Alzheimer’s human patients. There is much research to be done before companies and media can claim that there is indeed some beneficial connection. The underlying factors are simply too many for accurate predictions at this stage.

Studies on CBD and Alzheimer’s Disease

Additional Sources of Information

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The research and talent that went into this article and infographic was made possible by a grant from High Country Group, LLC. Visit High Country’s CBD website for top-quality CBD products.

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The statements in this document have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Consult your physician before beginning any treatment regimen.

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