Alzheimer’s is not the only cause of dementia, but it is the most common, responsible for about 60-80% of all dementia cases. If is one of the most feared conditions, mainly because of the mystery that surrounds it. There are a number of unknown factors, including who gets it, why they get it, and whether it can be prevented.
One of the most certain elements with Alzheimer’s is that risk increases with age. About 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 are diagnosed with the disease and and every 5 years the risk doubles, making it much more common among people who live on into their 80’s and 90’s. This is very important because, as more people live longer, the rate of Alzheimer’s relative to the population has increased dramatically. There is ongoing research into drugs and treatments that could help to prevent or even cure Alzheimer’s, but definitive answers remain elusive.
Types of Alzheimer’s Studies
Many different studies are conducted yearly on Alzheimer’s disease. There is a lot of information available; by contrast, there are only a few medical treatments and no cure. This can be frustrating for someone worried about an elderly relative who has or may get Alzheimer’s.
Scientists use different types of studies to back up their research. All of these studies are valid, but some methods are more exact and specific.
- Epidemiological or observational studies – these studies look at groups of people to analyze the relationship between several different factors. They are effective at identifying possible connections, but may not show the reason behind the connection, or whether there is a direct cause and effect relationship.
- In-vitro or animal testing – these studies look at the effect that one specific factor has on a disease using either animals or test-tube samples. They can be more specific than an observational study, but the results aren’t necessarily transferrable to humans.
- Randomized clinical trials – these studies test the safety and effectiveness of a medication or a treatment on a group of people in a controlled fashion. They are the most reliable studies. Extensive clinical testing is used to determine the safety and effectiveness of new drugs.
Much of the research on Alzheimer’s treatment and prevention is still in the early stages. A lot of epidemiological studies have found factors that significantly influence Alzheimer’s. A number of animal trials and clinical studies back up this information, but more research is needed in order to define and develop an effective treatment.
Research on Lifestyle Factors
Many lifestyle factors are considered to reduce Alzheimer’s risk, including exercise, a healthy diet, mental stimulation, and social interaction.
This is one area where a considerable amount of research has been done. Many epidemiological studies have found a link between exercise and lowered dementia risk. Animal tests involving rats and mice support these findings, showing that exercise increases blood flow to the brain and overall neuron health. One clinical study found that daily aerobic activity increased cognitive health in people over 65, and other studies are investigating whether exercise can actually stop dementia in the early stages.
Additionally, observational data supports the theory that rhythmical, intentional movement can further improve cognition and brain function. Clinical studies have found a positive effect in this area for Parkinson’s disease patients, and some current clinical studies are focused on the effect of dance-based video games on dementia.
Many observational studies link a mediterranean diet, high in vegetables, whole grains, and fish, and low in saturated fat and red meat, to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. Animal testing has supported this by showing that high sugar diets reduce cognitive levels in rats. Other studies have looked even more specifically at the effect of certain nutrients. Docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid found in salmon, was found to reduce Alzheimer’s-like changes in mice. This effect hasn’t yet been reproduced in humans, but it is a promising area for research.
Resveratrol, a substance found in red grapes is believed to have a similar effect, explaining the association between moderate red wine consumption and reduced Alzheimer’s risk. This has also proved to be effective in mice, and there are ongoing clinical trials in humans. If either of these substances are found to be effective, they could be isolated and used in stronger dosage to help treat Alzheimer’s patients and those at high risk.
Large studies support the benefit of mentally stimulating activities such as reading or crossword puzzles. Cognitive training is one area where there is continued research. Clinical studies have found that seniors who went through 10 sessions of formal cognitive training had improved cognition even years later. This supports the idea that higher levels of education and learning throughout life can improve brain function and may help to ward off Alzheimer’s. Most experts agree that this won’t physically alter plaque build up, but it can significantly reduce the symptoms of cognitive decline that accompany it.
Many studies support the benefit of social interaction for reduced Alzheimer’s risk. Social interaction is basically a form of mental stimulation, but it’s one that is particularly effective. Work, volunteer activities, and living with another person have all been associated with reduced Alzheimer’s risk. Further research is focused on uncovering what exactly makes this effective. Isolation is a big problem for people with Alzheimer’s related dementia, but it’s not fully clear whether early dementia causes isolation, or isolation contributes to dementia development.
Research on New Drugs
Current drug treatments for Alzheimer’s focus on the symptoms. They can be effective at improving memory and cognition, but they don’t stop the degeneration of brain cells and thus eventually become ineffective. The main changes in the brain that take place with Alzheimer’s include the development of abnormal beta-amyloid proteins (called plaques), tau protein tangles, and low level inflammation.
Research is aimed at finding new drugs to combat these changes at a molecular level and possibly even reverse cognitive dysfunction. None of these treatments are currently available, but they are being studied for safety and effectiveness.
- Monoclonal-antibodies – these drugs attack beta-amyloid proteins in the same way antibodies attack an infection and make it possible to flush some of the protein plaques out of the brain.
- Beta and gamma secretase inhibitors – these drugs stop the production of beta-amyloid proteins.
- Tau aggregation inhibitors – tau is a normal brain protein, but in Alzheimer’s patients it forms into tangles that contribute to memory loss. These drugs could prevent tau proteins from tangling.
- Ultrasound – a very new study has found that ultrasound treatments can activate waste removal cells and flush tau tangles out of the brain. The treatment has only been tried in rats at this point, but it was 75% successful at reversing memory loss.
- Vaccines – there are hopes for developing a vaccine that would prevent tau from tangling. So far clinical studies have not been successful, but there is still research in this direction.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs – observational studies have correlated the long-term use of NSAIDs with reduced Alzheimer’s risk. A diabetes drug called actos has shown to treat brain inflammation more specifically and it could prove to be effective against Alzheimer’s.
Research on Other Diseases
There seems to be a connection between Alzheimer’s and other diseases. This is still being researched in terms of potential treatment or prevention.
- Diabetes – observational studies have linked Alzheimer’s and diabetes. It’s not clear if this is a direct cause, or if the health problems that led to diabetes also contribute to Alzheimer’s. Some studies have found that insulin sprays can help to treat Alzheimer’s.
- Heart Disease – Alzheimer’s is also associated with heart disease and high blood pressure. Current studies are focused on this connection, including whether drugs that lower blood pressure could help with Alzheimer’s. Research on exercise and diet help to support this idea, but again it’s not entirely clear if one causes the other or if both are the result of poor health.
Research on Early Detection of Alzheimer’s
Currently, Alzheimer’s dementia can only be diagnosed symptomatically. Brain scans can sometimes show diminished brain size, and a high level of beta amyloid protein, but they are not effective for diagnosing Alzheimer’s, especially in the early stages. Scientist’s are aware, however, that changes in the brain take place long before decreased cognitive function. Many experimental drugs seem to have little effect once Alzheimer’s has begun, but it’s possible that they could be much more successful if they were given in the very early stages of the disease.
For this reason, a lot of research is focused on diagnosing Alzheimer’s before symptoms become apparent. Brain imaging is becoming slowly more detailed and accurate and may eventually show physical changes more exactly and much sooner. Neurologists study a wide range of scans in an effort to detect minute differences that could be indicative of early Alzheimer’s. Samples of brain and spinal fluid are also analyzed since it’s believed that these may show changes related to Alzheimer’s development.
Reducing Alzheimer’s Risk
Current research does not have all the answers, but there are still many ways to reduce the risk and minimize the negative impacts of the disease. Some of these can easily be put into practice even while they are under investigation. There isn’t a downside to maintaining a healthy level of exercise or eating balanced meals. It’s not absolutely proven that this will help, but it definitely won’t hurt.
Mental stimulation and social interaction is another important area. This can often be a concern for seniors who live alone, especially since isolation is associated with the early stages of the disease. Isolation can make it harder to maintain an adequate level of social and intellectual stimulation. Keeping elderly people involved with the rest of the world through activities or companionship care can be very important for their overall health.
Volunteering for Studies
Encouraging seniors to volunteer is one way to help them maintain an active social life. With all of the ongoing research on Alzheimer’s, many clinical studies are in need of subjects. Participating in a lifestyle study might improve your loved one’s cognition as well as making them feel like they are doing some good. This can help to balance out the depression and lack of confidence that often develop with Alzheimer’s. Many studies are looking for people over 65 whether or not they have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Medical studies are also an option, but the risk factor with these types of studies should always be taken into account.
Home Care Can Support Alzheimer’s Patients
Home care can be another great way to avoid isolation. Home care professionals will be interacting with your loved one on a daily or weekly basis. They will be able to track changes, as well as keep you informed on the latest research and potential treatments. Professional caregivers can assist with transportation as necessary and help to maintain the other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, like good nutrition and exercise. Home care visits can help to keep an elderly loved one connected.
Schedule a Free Home Care Evaluation!
Enlist the support of a Fairfax Home Care agency today and discuss the available programs and other questions related to Alzheimer’s patients. New research may one day find a cure, but at present this is one of the best ways to help prevent and manage the disease. For any additional questions, please call or contact Caring Hands Matter online to hear how our compassionate home care services can benefit you and your loved one.