We all want the same thing: to live a happy, fulfilled life with our bodies and minds as healthy as they can be, for as long as possible. In fact, “successful aging” has become the newest hot topic among medical professionals studying memory in older adults, with many scientists arguing it’s possible for everyone to preserve their memory and cognition as they age, depending on their habits and lifestyle. However, keeping our brains healthy is not easy, and it is even more difficult for individuals suffering from methamphetamine addiction. Long-term methamphetamine use has been linked to an increased risk of dementia, posing a unique challenge to a community that is at greater risk for developing both substance abuse and Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative illness that slowly destroys aspects of our thinking and perception, starting with memory.
It tends to appear later in life, with the National Institute of Aging estimating that most Alzheimer’s disease patients will be diagnosed by their mid-60s. There is no cure, and the exact cause of the disease is unknown.
Read on to discover more about the link between Alzheimer’s disease and methamphetamine use.
LGBTQ+ people are at a higher risk for developing both substance abuse disorder and dementia.
Substance abuse disorder (SUD) affects millions of Americans every year; according to the recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 20.4 million individuals aged 12 or older reported suffering from an SUD in 2019. Of those 20.4 million, 8.3 million suffered from illicit drug use disorder. On the same token, Alzheimer’s disease afflicts approximately 5.5 million Americans per year, with that number expected to grow annually.
Uniquely, LGBTQ individuals are substantially more at risk for developing both illicit drug use disorder and Alzheimer’s disease than non-LGBTQ folks. Many explanations for this disproportionate representation have been proposed, including:
- Increased risk of minority stress, unique to LGBTQ people, including homophobic bullying.
- Increased risk of food and shelter insecurity, with LGBTQ persons representing approximately 20-40% of homeless individuals, while only accounting for 5-10% of the wider population in general.
- Increased risk of adverse early life experiences, that of which is typically more severe when compared to non-LGBTQ persons, including maltreatment from a caregiver and rejection from social groups.
- Lack of access to LGBTQ-affirming healthcare, leaving dementia symptoms undetected until it is too late.
While methamphetamine is not the only illicit drug used in substance abuse disorder, it is one of the most dominant within the LGBTQ community. It is associated with the “party and play” subculture where individuals will take meth and engage in continuous, sometimes even days-long bouts of sexual activity; participants neglect sleep, food, and water during this period. Its ability to skyrocket feelings of pleasure within a short time frame is part of why it is so addictive, but also why it may be causing the brain to age faster.
How is meth toxic to the brain?
Methamphetamine is a highly-addictive psychostimulant drug, with a chemical structure that resembles key neurotransmitters like:
- Dopamine: the “feel good” chemical, responsible for feelings of joy and arousal.
- Norepinephrine: the “energy” chemical, promotes arousal and alertness.
- Serotonin: the “mood” chemical, responsible for maintaining a positive mood and regulating emotion.
Normally, neurotransmitters perform important functions across our bodies. Our neurons have spines (dendrites and axons) that project outwards, and the space where these spines meet the axons of other neurons is known as the synapse. Neurotransmitters are transported between the synapses, and travel throughout the nervous system in a combination of an electric and chemical signal.
However, this property of mimicking these neurotransmitters, as well as meth’s ability to cross the blood-brain barrier (the barrier that keeps unwanted substances out of the brain) make it particularly harmful to the brain and central nervous system as a whole, as it rapidly binds to critical circuitry throughout our reward pathways and forces the continued production of dopamine beyond normal levels. By taking control of this reward circuitry, it shifts our dopamine preferences to desire the drug as our primary source of dopamine.
Why is this increased production of dopamine bad, you ask? I mean, we know that dopamine is produced whenever we eat, laugh, or have sex — how could having more of it possibly be bad for the brain?
The problem is that an excess of excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine in the synapse can cause a sort of “overload” in the nervous system. As the synapse gets flooded with more dopamine than it can handle, it suffers progressive damage over time, eventually dying; this is known as neurotoxicity.
How does methamphetamine use increase risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease early?
Alzheimer’s disease is a complex illness characterized by an accumulation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles caused by tau. The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is still unclear, however. Some people can have a lot of amyloid and tau in the brain, yet never get dementia; some people can have a low amount of amyloid and tau, yet still get it. As a neurodegenerative disease, it causes the progressive death of brain tissue, starting with the medial temporal lobe, which contains our hippocampus.
The hippocampus is a structure responsible for converting our short term memories into long term memories, and it’s involved in nearly every pathway important in learning and memory.
The neurotoxic damage caused by methamphetamine preferentially targets the hippocampus, possibly due to its importance in dopaminergic and serotinergic neuron activity. It compromises the blood brain barrier, causing further toxic damage to the entire system. This catalyzes an increased rate of degeneration and death in the hippocampus, as well as the areas it projects to such as the nucleus accumbens, another target that meth attacks as it hijacks the reward-learning network.
While some loss of brain volume is perfectly normal in the aging brain, methamphetamine increases the rate at which brain tissue is lost, enough that chronic meth users show greater grey matter loss than non-meth users.
In essence, methamphetamine accelerates aging within the brain, resulting in premature decline in thinking and memory. Thankfully, studies have shown that not all types of damage from chronic methamphetamine use is permanent, and that the sooner treatment is given, the better the outcomes will be.
How does La Fuente Hollywood Treatment Center address the unique risks of LGBTQ individuals?
Methamphetamine use among the LGBTQ community remains a serious problem, and its ability to interfere with successful aging spells worse outcomes for individuals as they get older. Our team is committed to providing effective support to recovering sufferers of substance abuse disorder as soon as possible.
The unique social challenges faced by LGBTQ people that simultaneously increase their risk for both addiction and dementia need to be addressed through specialized programs.
Contact us to learn more, and begin the road to a healthier body and mind together.