In the last few weeks a handful of really interesting Alzheimer’s studies have emerged. These studies prove that, though there is still a long way to go in the treatment and prevention of this devastating disease, there are a lot of great things happening in the research community. Every advancement points in the right direction. Many new study results were shared recently at the Alzheimer’s Association conference in Vienna, Austria. And in addition to being informative—all of us at WEGO Health found these studies really fascinating. Here are the highlights:
First up— New tests might detect Alzheimer’s early on. By studying brain changes and body chemistry over time, researchers are getting closer to detecting Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages. This information will eventually lead to new treatments including new medications.
One study, in Ireland, found that combining results of MRIs that measure brain volume with a series of memory tests could accurately identify nearly 95% of people who had progressed from “mild cognitive impairment” to early Alzheimer’s. Another study in the US found that combining results of certain brain scans that measure glucose with a person’s low scores on memory tests were also a strong indication of disease progression. People who did poorly in both glucose measurements and memory tests were considered 15 times more likely to progress from Alzheimer’s within 2 years. Another similar study looks to changes in spinal fluid in combination with brain structure as a possible signal of disease progression.
Right now, unfortunately, an autopsy is the only way to be certain that someone has Alzheimer’s. The plaques and brain tangles are only truly detectable via post-mortem analysis. The tests researchers are doing on living patients are very subjective since they are often based on memory tests. This means that the studies by drug companies must be a) conducted on lots patients b) spend a lot of money on these tests.
Some of the most intensive studies are being done to detect an “Alzheimer’s gene.” People who have relatives with dementia might be at a significantly higher risk of contracting the disease. There are two major genes found in the brain—APOE4 and TOMM40 that, combined, account for about 85-90% of the genetic effect of the disease. Tests can be done to detect if you have these genes. Read more here.
But did you know that the medical community used to discourage people from being tested early for the Alzheimer’s Gene? It’s true. Researchers thought that people who tested positively for the APOE4 gene might be devastated by their increased dementia risk, that they would live in panic. However, a new study proves this to be false. Genetic tests on relatives of Alzheimer’s patients do not cause them mental duress and devastation. Those who were made aware of their heightened risk were no more likely to be distressed or live in fear. In fact, some study participants who were told that they do have the Alzheimer’s gene were actually relieved to know their risk and glad to be able to consider planning for the worst-case scenario. Read more about people who took the genetic test here.
Have you heard that people who are articulate in their 20s are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s? Researchers being articulate early in life could prevent Alzheimer’s—even if the person shows brain indicators of dementia. Researchers knew that some people who have “severe plaques and tangles” in their brain and show no symptoms of memory loss while others with similar brain tangles may have a severe case of Alzheimer’s. This fact caused researchers to consider how language/articulation might affect the onset of symptoms.
In the study – researchers examined old essays written by their participants (38 deceased nuns) as they entered the convent in their early 20s. They looked for how many ideas were expressed every 10 words and how complex the grammar was. Women without memory problems scored 20% higher on these language analyses of their old writing. The grammar tests showed no difference. So now researchers are looking into the idea that articulate young people lead to adults without dementia. Yet another reason to try hard in school and keep our brains sharp throughout life! Learn more here.
Another startling study claims that spouses of people with dementia are a substantially higher risk of developing dementia themselves. After following 1,200 couples for 10 years, researchers found that wives who care for husbands with dementia were 4 times more likely to develop dementia than wives of husbands without the disease. And for husband care-givers? Husbands who take care of wives with dementia were 12 times more likely to develop the disease than those whose wives were cognitively healthy.
Why is this? Dementia is not contagious. Researchers think that the stress involved with caretaking is a huge factor. Stress is high among caregivers—especially for those who care for someone with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. In addition, stress is also a known risk factor for getting dementia. Plus, those who are stressed-out are less likely to eat healthy and exercise—both of which help the brain stay healthy.
You might think that environment is a possible reason as to why both husbands and wives come down with dementia. However, this study isolated these factors and concluded environment, education, and genetics were not factors.
But why? Doctors believe that it might be because older men often rely on their wives to keep up social ties with relatives and friends. Once she has dementia, she loses this ability – and he too suffers the consequences of a missing social life. Also – wives play a big role in getting men to see doctors. Men who don’t have the extra nudging from their wives about staying healthy can succumb to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other conditions that may increase the risk of dementia. It’s important that caregivers receive help so that they can manage stress and find relaxation in order to maintain their own health in the midst of an Alzheimer’s spouse. Read more.
Have you heard that eating fish helps boost memory? This is likely. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements may boost memory in healthy aging adults. A test was done on people with “mild memory complaints” where some were administered placebos and others were given an Omega-3 supplement (of docosahexanoic acid – DHA). There was a slight improvement among those who took the supplement. Although these results were positive, the Alzheimer’s Association does not yet recommend that people take supplements to fend off age-related memory loss. This might be because another study said that there is no difference between those who have taken the Omega-3 DHA supplement and those who haven’t. Even with those who were tested positively for the APOE4 gene variant, DHA had no effect. Weirdly, those without the gene that used the supplement did see a bit of improvement. This proves that this type of treatment might only be effective if administered extremely early on. More about Omega-3 studies here.
All of these results prove that Alzheimer’s is a complicated disease. Sometimes the brain indicates illness and other times the same results do not necessarily mean someone will get dementia. Only time and more research will tell if how we live now can affect our chances at getting this awful disease. Until then, the usual healthy living ideas we hear so much (diet, exercise, social interaction) are all we can really do.
Love coffee? Check out Sarah’s blogpost: Could 5 Cups of Coffee Prevent Alzheimer’s?
Read about GPS Shoes – new technology for tracking Alzheimer’s Patients
Browse all the WEGO Health blogposts about Alzheimer’s