Alzheimer’s Research: Where We Are Today
By CareerSmart Learning Contributor, Sept 22, 2017, as published by Healthcare Hot Spot
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that affects an estimated five million Americans and is the sixth leading cause of death in the country (alz.org). Alzheimer’s disease is insidious and there is much the scientific community continues to discover about the disease. While deaths from heart disease have decreased 14 percent since the year 2000, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased by 89 percent (alz.org).
Research on Alzheimer’s disease varies from modifying the risk factors associated with it to new methods for early detection. Hopefully, this stream of research will allow the medical community to begin lowering the rates of Alzheimer’s disease in the near future. Current research is looking at several areas of Alzheimer’s disease, including prevention and detection:
- Exercise as protection, not prevention. It was originally believed that physical activity was linked to improved brain function later in life due to an increase in perfusion. However, that increased perfusion only temporarily leads to high cognitive function. While all physical activity in one study did not produce a decline in the rates of Alzheimer’s disease, exercising during leisure time was found to be “protective” against Alzheimer’s disease, particularly if that leisure-time exercise is also socially and cognitively stimulating (Stephen, Hongisto, Solomon, Lönnroos, 2017). In the study, participants who regularly exercised were found to have high cognitive functioning two years later. But the study did not find supportive evidence that exercise works as a long-term preventative treatment against Alzheimer’s disease (Stephen, Hongisto, Solomon, Lönnroos, 2017).
- Lifestyle modifications as prevention. While Alzheimer’s disease does not have any proven cure or treatment, one study found that modifying lifestyle behaviors could improve executive functioning. This improvement was especially pronounced when the study participants had shortened telomere lengths. Even though leukocyte telomere length (LTL) does decrease with normal aging, the LTL is additionally affected by the person’s overall health and shortens further still to demonstrate a person’s biological age and not their chronological age. In this study, modifying lifestyle behaviors such as diet, exercise, cognitive training, and vascular risk management. The shorter the LTL during the beginning of the trial, the more evident the benefits of the lifestyle interventions were at the end of trial (Sindi et al., 2017). Therefore, if LTL length is predictive of Alzheimer’s disease, then poor overall health is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and implementing lifestyle modifications could decrease a person’s risk for developing it.
- Early detection through blood work. One study is working towards developing a blood test that could detect Alzheimer’s disease long before symptoms become apparent. The study has been using blood and brain tissue samples to distinguish RNA transcripts that are specific to Alzheimer’s disease. The ultimate goal is to develop an easy and inexpensive blood test that could lead to early diagnosis, as well as early detection of risk for Alzheimer’s disease. So far, the research is showing that this goal of early detection through blood work is a possibility, but more research and testing are required to make it a reality (Delvaux et al., 2017).
It is now believed that approximately one-third of all Alzheimer’s diagnoses are due to seven particular, modifiable risk factors: diabetes, midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, physical inactivity, depression, smoking, and low education level (Stephen, Hongisto, Solomon, Lönnroos, 2017). While genetics plays a large role in Alzheimer’s disease, it is encouraging that approximately one-third of Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses can be attributed to lifestyle risk factors. And even though researchers are still deciphering Alzheimer’s disease, including risk factors, means of prevention, and possible cures, in the meantime, it is incredibly valuable to understand that modifiable risk factors, like diet and exercise, can show tremendous improvement in lowering risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Alz.org. (2017). 2017 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Retrieved from http://www.alz.org/documents_custom/2017-facts-and-figures.pdf
Stephen, R., Hongisto, K., Solomon, A., Lönnroos, E. (2017). Physical Activity and Alzheimer’s Disease: A Systematic Review. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 72(6), 733-739, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glw251
Delvaux, E., Mastroeni, D., Nolz, J., Chow, N., Sabbagh, M., Caselli, R.J., Reiman, E.M., Marshall, F.J., Coleman, P.D. (2017). Multivariate analyses of peripheral blood leukocyte transcripts distinguish Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, control, and those at risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Neurobiology of Aging; DOI: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2017.05.012
Sindi, S., Ngandu, T., Hovatta, I., Kåreholt, I., Antikainen, R., Hänninen, T., Levälahti, E., Laatikainen, T., Lindström, J., Paajanen, T., Peltonen, M., Khalsa, D.S., Wolozin, B., Strandberg, T., Tuomilehto, J., Soininen, H., Kivipelto, M., Solomon. A. (2017). Baseline Telomere Length and Effects of a Multidomain Lifestyle Intervention on Cognition: The FINGER Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease; 59 (4): 1459 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-170123