We’ve received permission to publish a recent email from one of our readers on Alzheimer’s disease and CBD. Here it is in its entirety:
Dear CBD Movement,
I’m writing to you after losing my mother a few weeks ago. She had Alzheimer’s disease. Her condition worsened over the last year and a half since she was diagnosed. Finally, all the complications became too much for her. She had become so weak physically, she eventually caught pneumonia and her body shut down. She was not that old… only 73.
My family is devastated by her loss. Yet we are also relieved. I feel terrible writing that. But she was a woman of great humor and fun and made everyone who came in contact with her feel like the most special person in the world. To watch her mind disappear and her joyfulness turn into rage and frustration, and to see her become unable to perform basic functions without help… our relief comes from not seeing her suffer anymore.
I wanted to write to you because as she got worse and the doctors changed her medications several times I started to look at other options. I learned about cannabidiol (CBD) and how it can protect the brain and neurons and help with some of the chemicals involved in developing Alzheimer’s. But I learned about it too late. My mom was far gone and hope for her was low. But I kicked myself too. If I had known about CBD a long time ago, maybe I could have helped her more? I’ll never know.
Alzheimer’s can run in families, so I have started to do some things to prevent myself from ending up like my mother. I don’t want to put my family through all of that again. I’ve been adding more “good fat” to my diet since many experts say that this is good for your brain. And I now take a 500mg CBD oil twice a day. It can’t hurt, right? I notice feeling calmer than I used to from taking it regularly. Of course you can’t tell if it’s helping prevent Alzheimer’s but I’ll do anything to live an Alzheimer’s-free life after what I’ve been through the last couple of years.
I wonder if you will be talking more about Alzheimer’s disease and CBD on your site? The disease is uncurable once it starts. That’s why I think it’s so important to help people to understand how there could be possible ways to prevent it. We don’t know all the facts on CBD yet but I think you might help a lot of people concerned about Alzheimer’s. Or at least make them aware. Every little bit helps.
Thank you for reading this. I hope you’ll publish more about Alzheimer’s soon.
Nancy [name changed]
First off, we want to publicly acknowledge and thank “Nancy” for her touching email. Our staff has had some experience with relatives who’ve had Alzheimer’s, too. It’s one of the most heartbreaking and difficult diseases of our time.
The lowdown on Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease (or AD, for short) usually starts with momentary lapses in memory and cognition, but it turns into so much more than that. As the brain degenerates, those afflicted lose not only their minds, but their bodies as well, and become unable to perform the simplest functions. In the end they become 100% dependent on others just to get through the day. Alzheimer’s itself isn’t fatal, but its progression leads to complications that are. This decline can happen quickly, or it can take years.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, AD is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. And where fatalities from other health issues like heart disease have actually been on the decline, deaths from AD have been steadily on the rise. An estimated 5.7 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s. This number is projected to almost triple by 2050 to 14 million. As our population ages (and lives longer), this isn’t too surprising. Currently, every 65 seconds, another person in this country develops Alzheimer’s.
The financial implications of growing Alzheimer’s cases are pretty staggering as well. And as bad as the disease itself is, the toll it takes on caregivers is also a killer. Like “Nancy,” the families of those dealing with Alzheimer’s are emotionally and physically beaten up (which can lead to health problems for them, too, on top of it all). About 16 million Americans are giving unpaid care to people with AD or other dementias.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
In simple terms, Alzheimer’s is a progressive, incurable disease that is caused by abnormal degenerative changes in the brain. Scientists are not sure exactly where or how the breakdown begins, but multiple factors seem to figure in—the greatest of which seems to be aging. There are two types of abnormalities that experts believe are closely linked to the development of AD: plaques and tangles. The plaques are actually deposits of a protein fragment called beta amyloid, which builds up in the spaces between nerve cells in the brain. Tangles are made up of fibers of another protein, called tau, which accumulates inside the cells.
Autopsies have shown that some plaques and tangles are a part of the aging process, but in Alzheimer’s patients, there are far more of them, and they seem to develop in a specific pattern, starting in areas of the brain that control memory, and then spreading to other areas. These abnormalities are still being studied, but scientists currently believe that they impede nerve cell communication, affecting processes crucial to cell survival. Inflammation and the formation of free radicals are also seen as potential factors in the development of Alzheimer’s. As the nerve cells in the brain are affected and slowly die, the spectrum of Alzheimer’s symptoms unfolds—memory loss, changes in personality, and eventually difficulty doing just about anything.
It’s never too early to think about prevention
“Nancy” is right about a lot of things. AD is indeed partly a genetic problem. It’s beyond the scope of this article to explain the genetics of Alzheimer’s, but this article from the National Institute on Aging does a pretty good job. So if we’re told that aging and genetics are two of the biggest contributors to developing Alzheimer’s—two things that are totally out of our control—what can we do? Are there any solutions? Unlike many other diseases that have more manageable causes, Alzheimer’s can be especially worrisome because we might feel helpless to prevent it.
The truth is that Alzheimer’s still needs to be studied and fully understood, and at the moment, just like there are no real cures, there are no clear answers. That being said, most of what we know of this disease was discovered in just the last 20 years or so, and given our growing, aging population, it’s at the forefront of modern medical research.
And yes, many experts would agree that there are measures we can take. Protecting brain and neurological health is of the utmost importance, and there are proactive ways to do this. Scientists have seen that some of the factors for the degenerative changes that lead to Alzheimer’s are similar to the risk factors for heart disease. What does this mean? Giving up nicotine/smoking, controlling your alcohol intake, staying physically active, eating a clean diet full of healthy fats, sleeping well, and avoiding or minimizing stress can protect not only your heart, but your brain as well. In addition, it’s been shown that keeping the mind stimulated via learning, reading, puzzles, etc., and maintaining a healthy social life “might also help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Alzheimer’s and cannabinoids
There is also a growing body of research that shows how the endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a role in protecting the brain and nerves against the degeneration that leads to Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.
One study from 2014 states: “The limited effectiveness of current therapies against Alzheimer’s disease (AD) highlights the need for intensifying research efforts devoted to developing new agents for preventing or retarding the disease process. During the last few years, targeting the endogenous cannabinoid system has emerged as a potential therapeutic approach…. Several findings indicate that the activation of both CB1 and CB2 receptors… [has] beneficial effects in Alzheimer experimental models by reducing the harmful β-amyloid peptide action and tau phosphorylation, as well as by promoting the brain’s intrinsic repair mechanisms. Moreover, endocannabinoid signaling has been demonstrated to modulate numerous concomitant pathological processes, including neuroinflammation, excitotoxicity, mitochondrial dysfunction, and oxidative stress.”
In plain English? This means that stimulating the ECS has the potential to protect the brain against those plaques and tangles, reduce inflammation overall, and reduce the production of free radicals—all of which are implicated in Alzheimer’s development. How do we stimulate the ECS? Cannabinoids.
A now-famous Australian study on Alzheimer’s disease and CBD done by researchers Tim Karl and Carl Group in 2011 actually gave mice injection-induced Alzheimer’s, and then treated them with CBD. The study was inspired based on findings that continually prove CBD to have neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. Karl and Group showed that three weeks of daily CBD treatments could reverse the cognitive deficits of the Alzheimer’s mice. Another part of their study revealed that eight months of CBD treatment could prevent “social recognition memory deficits.” There’s also evidence that CBD promotes neurogenesis (neuron growth and development), which suggests it can help fight age-related neurological deterioration. Karl’s work on CBD and Alzheimer’s continues, and we will cover it more in a separate piece.
Other studies suggest that THC can be helpful in Alzheimer’s treatment as well. According to a piece by CNN, THC can also stimulate the removal of plaques in the brain, as well as work as an anti-inflammatory. Dr. David Casarett, who is the chief of palliative care at Duke and the author of the book Stoned, is optimistic about medical cannabis as a potential AD treatment: “I spoke to many family members of people with mild or moderate dementia who believed that THC or whole-plant marijuana was effective in alleviating the confusion and agitation that sometimes occurs.” Other clinical studies (see here and here) support Casarett’s stance, showing that medical marijuana is useful in treating dementia and many of the behaviors common to Alzheimer’s patients—agitation, aggression, irritability, and sleeplessness.
David Schubert, senior researcher and a professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies, has studied medical cannabis for years, and while research has been rocky and complex, it has successfully shown cannabinoid medicine as a viable Alzheimer’s treatment. Schubert’s work tells us how “it’s possible to tilt the balance in the brain away from cell death and toward cell survival. Dying neurons in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients contribute to their loss of memories and mental abilities—if you could stop the many individual cell deaths, you might stall the progress of Alzheimer’s.”
The future depends on awareness, and legalization
Unfortunately, it’s slow-going down this research path, and it will remain harder to do domestic clinical research on medical cannabis as long as marijuana remains a controlled substance. The tide has begun to turn, though, as continued evidence of cannabis’s medical value becomes tough for even the White House to ignore.
When it comes to Alzheimer’s, influencers are stepping up and pushing for progress, too. Hollywood crack-up Seth Rogen and his wife Lauren Miller Rogen started Hilarity for Charity (HFC) in 2012 to raise awareness and inspire change around Alzheimer’s disease, especially among millennials, after their own experiences with the disease. Rogen—also a longtime marijuana enthusiast—pleaded before Congress in 2014 regarding inadequate funding for Alzheimer’s research. HFC is one way the Rogens are able to propel things forward and get Alzheimer’s its due attention. In fact, the most recent annual HFC fundraiser event is now on Netflix.
We’re proud to have readers like “Nancy” share their stories and inspire our movement. We’ll be publishing more content based on readers’ experiences as we continue to grow.