The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 15% of the world’s population, or about 785 million people, are mentally disabled –with dementia, memory loss, anxiety and stress-related disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and similar disabilities. In India, a recent study reported in this newspaper states that 74% of senior citizens (people above 60 years of age) reported stress and 88% reported anxiety, after the coronavirus pandemic and the associated lockdown. By the year 2050, the number of senior citizens in India can be about 20% of the population.
Treating Aged People
Given this situation, we need a variety of methods to detect and treat such mental disabilities in aged populations, and indeed even in ‘junior citizens’ before they attain the senior stage. Several traditional practices such as Ayurveda, Unani, Yoga and breathing exercises have been going on for centuries. Yet, we need to use modern science and technology, new detection and treatment modes.
It is here that a recent report from a group at the Weizmann Institute in Israel is of interest. They have shown that the compound called beta-sitosterol (BSS) reduces anxiety and synergizes with established anxiety drugs in mice. Their paper explores the effect of BSS on various parts of the brain and its chemistry, and can be accessed (Panayotis et al., 2021, Cell Reports Medicine 2,100281). We need more drugs to treat anxiety and stress-related disorders. The discovery and development of such compounds is a challenge. The most common sources of BSS are plants (called phytosterols). They have been used in traditional Indian medicine and are vegetarian since they are plant-derived. The most abundant source of BSS is canola oil, which has over 400 mg of this molecule per 100 grams, and so does corn (makki, cholam) and its oil. However, canola is not easily available in India. The easiest source of BSS in any supermarket across the country are nuts such a pistachio, almonds, walnuts, and even chickpeas (with 198, 132, 103 and 160 mg/100 grams of BSS). Dementia is a term that describes a group of conditions affecting the gradual impairment of brain function. It is associated with memory loss, and impaired cognition and mobility. An
individual’s personality may also change, and functional ability decline as the condition progresses. Dementia can also impose a burden on the sufferers and their families. An excellent and comprehensive review, titled “The Dementia Epidemic: Impact, Prevention and Challenges for India”, published by R. Sathianathan and S. J. Kantipudi in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry (2018, Vol 60(2), p 165-167), is available for free on the net.
Biomarkers of dementia
Scientists and clinicians are concentrating on detecting the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, by looking for biomarkers such as the deposition of insoluble plaques leading to neurodegeneration. In addition, imaging methods, that use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) can detect the onset of dementia conditions ahead of time. We have quite a few centers in several cities with MRI and PET scanning facilities. But we need more clinical and biological laboratories that can detect the roles of genetic and neurobiological aspects even before imaging techniques are used. We also need organic chemists to synthesize newer and more efficient drug molecules to act on neurological problems at their very early stage, inhibiting the neural system from degrading.
India has been a world leader in the area of the chemistry of natural products – identifying key molecules of health interest and synthesizing and marketing them across the country and the world. We also have world class biology laboratories that study genetic and molecular biological aspects. In addition, we have centuries-old herbal medicine centers (in Ayurveda and Unani systems) which continue to produce effective cures for dementia. If the country’s Central and State governments, plus private foundations can come together to support research, there is no reason why we cannot reduce the number of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease cases. Senior (and junior) citizens can offer their support by adopting diets rich in BSS, eating plant food and nuts, doing exercises- walking, bicycling, vigorous outdoor games – and yoga practices that help in making fitter bodies and brains.