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March 21, 2014

More Alzheimer research needed

The Canadian Charger

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A recent article in the journal Neurology sheds new light on the rate of Alzheimer's disease.

Previously, it was said that the rate of illness in the 65 to 74 age range was 1.6%, with the 75 to 84 cohort at 19% and 84 plus at 42%.  This autopsied study found the 75 to 84 cohort to have twice that rate, 37%.  At the same time, the 84 plus group was down a bit, at 36%.

There are implications of this study. 

One is the need to carry out similar studies to verify the results.  Such work demands the allocation of financial and professional resources.  Because Alzheimer’s is overwhelmingly a disease of the elderly, resources are less available than for such conditions.  Professionals are less attracted to working with the elderly than with children and younger adults.

Consider the shortage of geriatric specialists, for example in psychiatry.  Funders, governmental and private, share similar inclinations.  The situation is worse in North America than, for example, in Scandinavia, in comparing the quality of home care and extended care here to such programs there.

The research into incidence is but one piece of the Alzheimer puzzle.  We already have some knowledge about prevention. 

Thus, diet is fairly clearly known to be a factor, with a Mediterranean diet being the gold standard.  That diet is heavy on virgin (cold-pressed) olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grain carbohydrates, oily fish three or four times a week, dairy products in moderation, three or four eggs a week, moderate amounts of meat and fats (not hydrogenated), and a glass or two of red wine with dinner. 

More research on diet specifics could be useful Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease.  The brain shrinks and develops plaques and tangles.  Scientists have zeroed in on a protein called tau, important in neuron functioning.  In Alzheimer’s, too much tau is produced and it forms tangles that kill brain cells.  Unfortunately, finding a way to halt the tau buildup it does not form for the most part at the earlier stages of the disease.

Yet, as we learn more about the condition, and as we understand more, we may be able to develop more effective treatments.  We now know a bit more about the tangles.  What about plaques?  It appears that it is now possible to detect them, which is a first step.

Drug research is ongoing, with hundreds of treatments at various stages of study, to treat the condition.  One drug in clinical trials is aimed at tau.

In non-drug treatment, meditation is being explored as an aid to retrieving memory and cognitive functioning. Meditation may be just one form of brain stimulation that can have a positive effect and even a preventive impact on brain function, even when physical deterioration is actually present to some degree. Intellectual activities such as learning a new language seem to help.

Genetics are an important factor, and research into preventive measures for people at risk, as indicated by relatives who are afflicted, may deserve examination. Couples at risk may want to have genetic testing and counseling.  Can it become possible to intervene and turn off undesirable genes?  And what are the possible side effects if this kind of genetic engineering is pursued? Animal rights advocates oppose research using animals, but it appears that there is no substitute.

According to a 2012 article in Scientific American, “If we really are going to win the war, or even a battle, against Alzheimer’s, we need basic research that can delve into the complex biology that contorts proteins and kills brain cells to find treatments for this disease.” 

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