The mind is a powerful organ. It holds our thoughts, feelings, and, most importantly, precious memories.
However, as we age, our brains can gradually become less sharp. Our thought processes slow down. Attention starts to lack. We experience brain fog and need help remembering things.
While frustrating at times, these are natural occurrences caused by a shrinking brain, which starts around the age of 40. Around the age of 60, the areas of the brain most involved in higher cognitive function start decreasing. Additionally, fewer synaptic connections occur, which can lead to slower processing.
Having momentary lapses in memory or needing an extra minute to recall information is one thing. But cognitive decline that happens dramatically and impacts your personality and everyday routine could indicate early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is one of those diseases that affect not only the individual but the people around them. Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment or known cure for Alzheimer’s. Yet, there is hope that people living with Alzheimer’s may be able to get some relief from their symptoms and enjoy spending time with their loved ones and caregivers.
We have already talked about how Ketones can function as a secondary energy source for everyday performance. But they may also have a unique role in aiding cognitive performance in those with Alzheimer’s disease.
How Does Alzheimer’s Affect the Brain?
The terms “Alzheimer’s disease” and “dementia” are often used interchangeably. While they are related, we want to clarify their relationship.
Dementia is an umbrella term for conditions impairing memory and cognitive thinking. Therefore, Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia. In fact, it is the most common type, accounting for 50–75% of all dementia cases.
So how does Alzheimer’s disease affect our brains? To answer that, it’s essential to understand how the mental organ functions.
Neurons (nerve cells) communicate with other neurons to help make connections within the brain. They also help our brain send messages to the rest of the body, such as our muscles, organs, and tissues.
Neurons have an essential job of processing and storing information in our brain, which becomes our memories. Alzheimer’s disease disrupts the communication between neurons, which hinders the cells’ ability to function. When they cannot do their jobs fully, the nerve cells eventually die, negatively affecting cognitive processes.
The disease often starts in the hippocampus (i.e., the part of the brain responsible for memory) but will ultimately affect all brain regions.
So, what causes neural disruption in the first place?
Autopsy reports show that brains with Alzheimer’s have an abnormal amount of plaques and tangles. Plaques are the deposits of the protein fragment beta-amyloid. They can build up in the open spaces between nerve cells. Tangles are twisted fibers of the protein tau. They build up inside neuron cells.
Both plaques and tangles naturally occur as we age but appear even more so in dementia patients in specific patterns that begin in parts of the brain responsible for memories before spreading.
Researchers believe these structures may be the main culprits that cut off communication between neurons and lead to the death of nerve cells, causing many of the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s, including loss of memory, challenges performing daily tasks, and extreme personality changes.
Ketones as an Alternative Energy Source
So, what do ketones have to do with Alzheimer’s?
That answer has to do with the way our bodies (and brains) create and use energy.
When we consume carbohydrates, whether from foods or drinks, our liver metabolizes and converts them into glucose, i.e., sugar. Glucose is typically used as the primary fuel source for our bodies, but it’s not the only one.
Ketones are an alternative fuel source. When carb intake and storage are low, our body enters a state of ketosis, which involves the burning of fat instead of sugar for energy. This involves the formation of ketones, which are chemicals that serve as an alternative fuel source for our muscles, tissues, and organs—including the brain. In addition, they improve mitochondrial function and growth so that neurons can operate adequately and continue to power our minds.
Ketosis can be achieved in a few ways. First, you can try going on a keto diet, where you significantly limit carb intake and increase fat consumption to the point that your body has no choice but to use fat as fuel. You can also practice intermittent fasting, which starves the body of sugar and may also result in ketosis. Both of these methods usually result in the body creating ketones, which are referred to as endogenous ketones.
But there is an easier way to get ketones – by getting them exogenously (i.e., outside the body) through dietary aids. This may be an appealing option for those who don’t want to significantly modify their eating habits.
Ketones and Alzheimer’s Disease
Just like any part of our body, the brain also gets its energy from glucose as a result of metabolizing carbs. In fact, the brain requires a lot of energy, utilizing 50% of all sugar levels.
So, could the brain get fuel from ketones instead of glucose? The short answer is yes.
Alzheimer’s disease inhibits the brain’s ability to use glucose for energy. Since our brain is energy-dependent, and most people get their energy primarily from glucose, Alzheimer’s disease negatively impacts brain functions – profoundly affecting cognitive processes and memory storage. However, ketone metabolism does not appear to be impacted in the same way. Thus, ketones may be a valuable alternative energy source that can help improve cognitive processes.
The two effective ways of getting more ketones in your system, then, are through a ketogenic diet (high-fat, very low-carb, low-protein) or supplementation. Regardless of how you get ketones, both options have been shown to improve cognitive performance in healthy and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) patients.
Additionally, ketones have a role in protecting our brains from neuroinflammation and amyloid accumulation, which is the plaque that grows on organs. The results show promise in the effort against Alzheimer’s. While ketones have not been shown to prevent the disease, research suggests they may be useful in improving cognitive and motor performance in certain neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s.
Conclusion: Exogenous Ketones and Alzheimer’s Disease
Through further research, scientists may be able to unlock all the hidden powers of ketones. For now, it appears that ketones may be an advantageous alternative energy source that can help people with Alzheimer’s experience higher levels of cognitive functioning.