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gradnmother kisses a young baby, which helps avoid social isolation, a cause of Alzheimer's Researchers have been intensively studying Alzheimer’s for many years. Here’s a breakdown of some compelling insights into what we really know about the causes of the most common form of dementia — along with a glimpse into the possibilities for a cure. The Mayo Clinic reports that Alzheimer’s disease is typically rooted in a variety of factors — genetic, lifestyle and environmental — that impact the brain over the course of many years.1Only 5 of 100 cases “is caused by specific genetic changes that virtually guarantee a person will develop the disease.” Whatever the causes, Alzheimer’s harms and destroys brain cells. Compared to a healthy brain, Alzheimer’s patients have “fewer cells and many fewer connections than does a healthy brain.1

The shrinking brain

The new dementia paradigm reflects a scientific focus on biological changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s. As Alzheimer’s advances and brain cells die off, brain size dwindles. Two kinds of abnormalities — plaques and tangles — are found when doctors look at brain tissue under a microscope. Both are thought to be leading causes of cell damage and death. But what causes this protein buildup?

Newly identified causes of Alzheimer's

So, now that it’s pretty clear that plaques and tangles are deeply involved in Alzheimer’s, the next question is, what makes these proteins build up in the first place? The latest studies hint that genetics and less-than-healthy habits are only part of the problem. Writing in, Carrie Arnold shares the latest insights into the genesis of Alzheimer's.2Anti-anxiety medication, taken for 3+ months Some popular drugs used to treat anxiety and insomnia — including Ativan, Xanax and Klonopin — have only been studied for short-term use. But long-term use is not uncommon. A study published in the British Medical Journal found that taking anti-anxiety medication for more than three months was associated with as much as a 51% increase in Alzheimer’s disease. Head injuries cause "forever" inflammation When someone experiences a concussion, the body uses inflammation as part of the healing process. But for some people, the inflammation that helps heal damaged brain tissue never goes away. Brian Giuna, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of South Florida, found possible links to Alzheimer’s in brain cells called microglia. When microglia become chronically inflamed - after a concussion - this may lead to a buildup of proteins in the brain. These "extra" proteins can kill neurons. Sleep deprivation stresses the brain Sleep problems may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s. One study shows a link between chronic sleep deprivation, which stresses the brain and body, and how it can also speed up the harmful processes leading to Alzheimer’s. Tip: Getting a good night’s rest just might help you avoid or delay dementia. Now that’s something to sleep on! Loneliness reduces healthy social connections A study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry identified links between loneliness and the development of dementia. Researchers concluded that lonely seniors have a 1.63 times chance of developing dementia during the three years of the study. This is more evidence that connection keeps us healthy in ways we may have never imagined. Alzheimer's may be Type 3 Diabetes Neuroscientist Suzanne de la Monte, MD, of Brown University offers that Alzheimer’s is a metabolic disease that may start outside the brain. (She - like many scientists before here - call Alzheimer's “Type 3 Diabetes.”) So, everything we do to maintain healthy insulin levels assists not just our body, but our brain as well.

A future of better treatment and brain regeneration

British neuroscientist Joseph Jebelli believes “much better treatment” for Alzheimer's will happen in the coming decade.3 Jebelli, author of the new book In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer’s, writes,
"Just the last few years alone have seen some serious breakthroughs in Alzheimer's research. Ten years should be enough time for us to develop, if not a cure, certainly a much better treatment than what we have at the moment.”
For example, Jebelli thinks, “There is a lot of really exciting research coming out now into neural stem cells that suggests that actually there are populations of cells in the brain that may provide regeneration, that may actually give birth to new neurons in the brain. …it’s a very exciting field at the moment, because a lot is happening.” References:
  1. Mayo Clinic, Overview of Alzheimer's
  2. 5 Surprising Causes of Alzheimer's Disease
  3. Neuroscientist Predicts 'Much Better Treatment' For Alzheimer's Is 10 Years Away
  4. In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer’s,
Our editor also recommends Four Surprising Early Signs of Alzheimer's.

About the Author(s)

With over 20 years of experience writing for leading healthcare providers, Rob is passionate about bringing awareness to the issues surrounding our aging society. As a former caretaker for his parents and his aunt, Rob understands first-hand the experiences and challenges of caring for an aging loved. Long an advocate for caregiver self-care, his favorite activities include walking on the beach, hiking in the coastal hills of Southern California and listening to music.

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