November 14, 2019

To Prevent Alzheimer’s, There’s Nothing Like Prevention, Experts Say

It seemed to be by chance at a party in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2003 that two young medics met and formed a connection over the loss of grandparents to dementia. For doctors Dean Sherzai and Ayesha Sherzai, this bond would shape the next 17 years of their lives as spouses, neurologists, and researchers in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

Today, as co-directors of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s prevention program at Loma Linda University Health in Loma Linda, California, United States, the duo has helped thousands of patients — ranging from the partially cognitively impaired to those suffering from Alzheimer’s — find hope through personal lifestyle intervention. Alzheimer’s is currently the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and now affects some 5.8 million Americans each year. 

“When you look at the numbers and realize that every 64 seconds someone develops Alzheimer’s, you have to ask yourself, Can this be avoided?” Dean says. “The answer is yes. In fact, we have found that more than 90 percent of cases can be prevented, and it starts with how we take care of ourselves.”

At Loma Linda University Health, the couple has created the NEURO plan, a lifestyle-focused approach to preventing Alzheimer’s, and authored the best-selling book “The Alzheimer’s Solution” to share their research with the world. 

“There isn’t one drug, vitamin, food, or single exercise that will prevent Alzheimer’s,” Dean says. “We use the NEURO approach with our patients because it’s a comprehensive plan that improves multiples facets that affect our brain health.”

Dean began his journey against Alzheimer’s one day in 1979 when his grandfather — a former secretary of state for education — forgot how to move a knight while playing chess with him. For Ayesha, her journey would begin one day in Kabul, where her grandfather — a former prime minister of Afghanistan — forgot her name. 

As children, neither of them could do anything as they watched two men they loved lose themselves to dementia. “We didn’t make the connection until years later that these specific moments were what started our fight against Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Ayesha said.

Dean completed a neurology residency at Georgetown University School of Medicine and went on to a fellowship in experimental therapeutics in neurodegenerative diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At the end of his fellowship, in 2002, he was recruited by the World Bank to lead the health-care efforts at the onset of a newly developed government in Afghanistan. He was subsequently asked by President Hamid Karzai to help rebuild the health-care system as the deputy minister of health. Ayesha, a recent graduate from medical school, was volunteering with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in refugee camps near the capital city of Kabul.

The pair married in 2004 and spent the next three years in Afghanistan working to empower 10,000 women in midwifery and other disciplines in Taliban-controlled areas. However, frustration with government bureaucracy led them to return to the United States. 

Stateside again, they started a family and continued to tackle meaningful neurology work. Ayesha completed dual training in preventative medicine and neurology at Loma Linda University and a fellowship in vascular neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University. Passionate about her research and also about food, she attended culinary school in the evenings while attending her fellowship at Columbia. Dean went on to obtain two master’s degrees: one in advanced sciences at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and one in public health from Loma Linda University. He is currently finishing a doctorate in health-care leadership from Andrews University.

In 2008, the Sherzais came to Loma Linda University Health, where they had the opportunity to examine two very different populations and observe the impact a brain-healthy lifestyle was having on patients. On the one hand, the Sherzais treated patients from the large Seventh-day Adventist population known for plant-based eating, physical activity, and emphasis on faith and community. They also treated those from the nearby city of San Bernardino, an underserved area with high rates of chronic disease and lack of access to care.

“Looking at these two distinct populations, we consistently observed that our patients who were living healthier lifestyles had much lower rates of dementia,” Dean said.

Empowered by their studies at Loma Linda University Health, the Sherzais took jobs at the Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention Program at Cedars-Sinai hospital in 2014. There they would work with the Hollywood elite and participate in ground-breaking studies on lifestyle disease prevention, leading them to conclude lifestyle could be a successful treatment for Alzheimer’s.

Lifestyle prevention as a cure for Alzheimer’s wasn’t something the Sherzais concluded overnight. Ayesha says when they first started as neurologists, they were hopeful that research would result in a cure or pill that would affect the pathology they knew too well. “It took fifteen years of work with our patients for us to realize that you can’t approach a chronic disease of aging, like dementia, with sick care,” Ayesha says. “For us, the concept of prevention became very important.”

Inspired by their research and the desire to help more communities, the Sherzais returned to Loma Linda in 2017 and continued their work against Alzheimer’s as co-directors of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s prevention program. Based on the data they have collected from their patients and supported research from the ongoing Adventist health studies and outside lifestyle studies, the Sherzais are determined to share with the world what they believe can be the cure for Alzheimer’s. 

“Medicine is constantly evolving, and it’s critical to patient care that our studies evolve with time,” Ayesha says. “We couldn’t be more excited to research what we are passionate about in our community.”

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that nearly 14 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s or dementia by 2050. Motivated by their personal experiences and research, the Sherzais hope to alter the path of Alzheimer’s with their program.

“You can’t control your age or your genetic profile, but you can control your lifestyle choices,” Dean says. “Lifestyle can make all the difference. It’s the best defense we have.”

The original version of this story was posted on the Loma Linda University Health news site.

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