What the Latest Alzheimer's Research Means for Your Brain
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Surprising. Frustrating. Promising. These words sum up the current thinking of the brightest minds in Alzheimer’s research. Come along as we explore up-to-the-minute news about how Alzheimer’s develops. We will also assess the quest for the holy grail: A cure for Alzheimer’s.

Part 1: How Does Alzheimer’s Develop and What are the Best Ways to Treat it?

What’s the relationship between poor sleep, frailty, and gum disease?

All of these can contribute to Alzheimer’s! Here are seven intriguing insights from the front lines of Alzheimer’s research.

  1. How the brain changes during early Alzheimer’s.

What’s been discovered: Recently, we explored the emotional impact of hearing three scary words: “You have dementia." But what is really happening during the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease? For the first time, researchers at the University of Eastern Finland have identified a series of changes that occur in the human brain during the initial phases of Alzheimer’s.

Specifically, researchers found a connection between changes in certain types of brain cells and the accumulation of tau protein. Next, researchers will turn their attention to whether these brain changes show up in blood samples or cerebrospinal fluid. If they do, this information could be used to identify Alzheimer’s biomarkers.

Late-breaking news: Scientists have also been researching the connection between a build up of amyloid plaques in the brain and the development of Alzheimer’s. Now, researchers have uncovered an Alzheimer’s gene that could create the conditions for amyloid plaques to show up in the brain.

It’s been known for awhile that amyloid deposits are found a decade or longer before disease symptoms are recognized. Researchers have been looking for possible causes of the unhealthy amyloid buildup. Thousands of brain scans identified people with amyloid deposits before they experienced Alzheimer’s. The discovery of this gene could set the stage for the development of therapies that might halt the development of the disease.

The bottom line: These promising breakthroughs may create a path for new ways to treat the disease — or even stop it before it develops.

  1. Neurons that create the conditions for Alzheimer’s.

What’s been discovered: When it comes to developing Alzheimer’s, all brain cells aren’t created alike. In fact, one kind of brain cell is more likely to attract abnormal protein. These “excitatory neurons” cause tau protein to build up, clog, and kill healthy cells.

Much of the research on Alzheimer's disease in the past focused on the buildup of amyloid beta proteins in the brain. But a team of Ohio State University researchers has set its sights on a protein called tau.

Researcher Hongjun “Harry” Fu of Ohio State University explains, “if we can figure out the molecular determinants underlying vulnerability to this disease, it will help us better understand the development of Alzheimer’s disease and potentially could lead to techniques for early detection and targeted treatment.”

Late-breaking news: New research has found genetic and molecular connections between amyloid-beta and tau proteins. For the first time, researchers were able to follow the disease’s path in neurons that are prone to Alzheimer’s.

The research indicates that when aging meets amyloid-beta protein, it can lead to tangles of tau protein which cause the neurons to die. Scientists hope this can help them figure out how to create neurons that are more resistant to this condition.

The bottom line: The research about unhealthy tau accumulation has only just begun. This work helps scientists better understand Alzheimer’s and may also pave the way for future diagnostic approaches, and perhaps even treatments.

  1. Frailty increases susceptibility.

What’s been discovered: One reason Alzheimer’s research is tricky is that it’s a complex disease with multiple causes. The Lancet Neurology journal published new research that demonstrates a relationship between frailty and Alzheimer’s dementia. The study recommends that frailty should be a factor for managing the disease.

Research revealed that older people who are frail are more likely to have increased symptoms than those who are stronger. In simple terms, a “frail brain” could be more likely to encounter neurological conditions such as dementia.

Late-breaking news: Researchers believe that people who are physiologically frail are more prone to developing Alzheimer’s, while those whose brains are more fit have a better chance of remaining symptom free.

The study followed hundreds of adults who did not have the disease when they entered the program. So far, over 50% of the participants were eventually diagnosed with “possible or probable” Alzheimer’s disease.

The bottom line: These findings could lead to a new set of preventive guidelines designed to delay the symptoms of dementia.

  1. Why light sleepers might have heavier risks.

What’s been discovered: Poor sleep and Alzheimer’s disease have been linked for some time. Now researchers are waking up to one of the root causes. Their discovery? Elderly people who experience less deep sleep have higher concentrations of tau brain protein. Elevated tau is a common symptom pointing to Alzheimer’s disease. It is also associated with cognitive decline, and even brain damage.

Late-breaking news: A team of Boston University researchers contend that as we rest the brain gets rid of proteins that build up while we are awake. This nightly cleansing assists our brain in ways that reduce the chance for developing Alzheimer’s.

Among the “waste products” that get washed away are amyloid-beta proteins.

This keeps them from turning into plaque and harming our neurons. (Poor sleeping patterns limit our brain’s ability to cleanse these proteins.)

The bottom line: As the connection between sleep and dementia becomes increasingly clear, researchers believe that sleep monitoring might lead to earlier detection of Alzheimer’s. (Even daytime napping was correlated with increased tau levels.) Simply asking, “How much do you nap during the day?” could help medical professionals find patients who might benefit from additional screening. There are also many ways to improve senior’s sleep, such as daily exercise and exposure to sunlight.

  1. Open wide and say, “gum disease might encourage Alzheimer’s.”

What’s been discovered: Researchers now believe that a bacterium that leads to gum disease may also be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s. This means that one of the bacteria responsible for things like tooth loss and a higher risk of cancer could also encourage toxic proteins to build up in the brain. (As covered above, the accumulation of abnormal proteins is a leading suspect in the development of Alzheimer’s.)

Late-breaking news: Researchers have determined that this porphyromonas gingivalis bacteria is capable of migrating to the brain. The bacteria unleashes enzymes that may damage nerve cells. This paves the way for memory problems, which can lead to Alzheimer’s.

The bottom line: The connection between gum disease and Alzheimer’s is paving the way for new kinds of therapeutic drugs targeting Alzheimer’s disease. In the meantime, these findings magnify the importance of brushing and flossing your teeth, and seeing a dentist regularly.

  1. Can exercise stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks?

What’s been discovered: It’s old news that regular exercise can help us feel better and live longer. But can regular exercise protect us against Alzheimer’s? A new study maintains that exercise can shield us from cognitive decline. Equally important, it reveals precisely how this occurs.

A study shared by Medical News Today in 2018 showed that half a year of regular exercise has the potential to “actually reverse the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment.” Now, researchers from around the world are racing to explore the biological reasons that support this connection.

Their findings were published in the journal, Nature Medicine. Research hints that a protein and hormone released during exercise might explain the slowing cognitive impairment that typically accompanies Alzheimer’s related diseases. In the study, scientists found that Alzheimer’s disease interferes with these normal hormonal signals.

Late-breaking news: Besides boosting protective brain chemicals, exercise may help the brain retain important connections that often fade as we age. As little as a half hour of physical activity a few times a week can help us become sharper. This applies to both healthy people as well as those already experiencing cognitive impairment.

The bottom line: Researchers are now studying these “signaling pathways” in hopes that it leads to improved treatments for cognitive problems.

  1. Younger onset Alzheimer’s disease is increasing.

What’s been discovered: Alzheimer’s patients can be shockingly young. According to Alzheimer’s Association spokesperson Kaylin Risvold, around 200,000 of the 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s developed the disease before turning 65. Often, an early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis is not made because many health care providers or family members believe something else must be causing the symptoms. An accurate diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s is crucial for ruling out other potential issues and getting the most appropriate treatment.

The Chicago Sun Times recently shared the story of Chicago native Theresa Montgomery, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 58 years old. Montgomery and other African-Americans are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias than other races, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report.

At the same time, African-Americans and Latinos are less likely than whites to be diagnosed. This is especially troublesome because researchers are increasingly able to screen and identify people at risk of developing dementia, and to treat Alzheimer’s.

Late-breaking news: It seems that the age of people who develop early onset Alzheimer’s is dropping. But that could be due to the fact that medicine is paying more attention to it.

Early detection is occurring more often. Brain imaging is increasingly common and can be used to identify people with symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. (A report summarized by the Mayo Clinic found that nearly 90% of subjects diagnosed with early onset had brain imaging performed within 12 months of the diagnosis.)

The bottom line: While a cure remains elusive, there are things we can do that are within our power to help maintain quality of life and promote a healthy brain. This includes everyday activities such as eating properly, exercising regularly, and remaining active socially.

5 Steps You Can Take NOW to Protect Brain Health Based on the Latest Research:

1. Fight against frailty: Encourage your loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia to keep moving both physically and mentally. Talk to your care team about taking a proactive approach to protecting your loved one in body and mind.

2. Don’t accept poor sleep as normal. If mom or dad has trouble sleeping or if you notice they need to take regular naps, bring this to the attention of their doctor. It’s becoming obvious that we don’t just rest when we are sleeping — our body is actively repairing itself!

3. Practice proper oral hygiene. When we don’t take care of our teeth, it can lead to more than bad breath and root canals. It impacts our overall health. Follow the guidelines to floss daily, brush teeth twice and day, and schedule regular visits with a dentist.

4. Exercise! Exercise! Exercise! It bears repeating: Exercise isn’t just for young, healthy people. It’s for everyone. Compare notes with your care team about an appropriate exercise routine for your loved one.

5. Act healthy today to stay healthier tomorrow. The fight against dementia and Alzheimer’s begins when we’re young and continues throughout life. Protect your health and set a good example for everyone you love by respecting your body and mind with a sensible diet and frequent exercise.

Part 2: Are We Close to a Cure for Alzheimer’s?

Do lifestyle changes have the power to reverse Alzheimer’s? Can a stool sample translated from a “super donor” turn back the clock on dementia? Is there a vaccine on the horizon that might prevent Alzheimer’s from developing in the first place? Dive in and explore some encouraging news about one of medicine’s most elusive pursuits.

  1. Lifestyle changes the course of Alzheimers.

What’s been discovered: Last year, UCLA researchers reported on a different kind of treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Each of the participants in the study showed dramatic improvements in both memory and cognition. Even more remarkable, the results didn’t come from a miracle drug or research breakthrough. Instead, it centered around lifestyle modification featuring a combination of a better diet, increased exercise, reduced stress, improved sleep, and some additional changes.

Naturally, there are challenges. For one thing, it’s far easier to take a pill than watch our diet, exercise regularly, reduce stress, etc. But the results speak for themselves.

The bottom line: There are things we can do right now for people with Alzheimer’s! And there as close as the kitchen..and the front door (so you can get some exercise!)

  1. A message from the gut to your brain.

What’s been discovered: Sometimes medical breakthroughs come from unlikely sources. A recent round of research indicates that stools — yes, that’s right, stools — might cure a variety of diseases like Alzheimer’s.

But not just any stool sample will do the trick. A certain kind of donor known as a “super donor” has an extremely rich microbial diversity.

Fecal transplants from “super donors” may have the power to heal everything from inflammatory bowel disease to multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease!

This area of study is based on research that discovered a relationship between gut bacteria and age-related maladies, including a discovered link between Alzheimer’s and gut bacteria.

The, um, bottom line: Researchers are seeking to understand precise how super donor stool samples help conquer chronic diseases. If and when they do, fecal transplantation could be a common therapy for treating illness.

  1. The buildup to a vaccine that really works.

What’s been discovered:Researchers have been seeking a magic bullet for Alzheimer’s for decades. One of the most promising areas is in the study of the neurological characteristics of Alzheimer’s. A number of researchers believe that homing in on amyloid buildup might make it possible to halt Alzheimer’s in its tracks.

Currently being tested with a mouse model of Alzheimer’s, a team at the University of Texas has repeatedly shown safe and effective results. Human trials are on the horizon.

The bottom line: While this approach shows great promise, there is no timeline for the introduction of a vaccine that cures Alzheimer’s

  1. No cure doesn’t mean zero options.

Many years and billions of dollars in research later, we still can’t cure Alzheimer’s. So what can we do for our loved one’s — or ourselves — if we are diagnosed? You might wish to heed the advice of P. Murali Doraiswamy, the head of biological psychiatry at Duke University and a Senior Fellow at Duke’s Center for the Study of Aging.

Doraiswamy reminds us that while aging is the major risk factor for Alzheimer’s, that doesn’t mean Alzheimer’s is a normal part of aging. The second thing to remember is that there’s a lot we can do to stay healthier and enjoy a more productive life.


Resources

New Brain Changes in Early Alzheimer’s Disease

One Type of Brain Cell May Invite Alzheimer’s Disease

Frailty Could Make People More Susceptible to Alzheimer’s

Decreased Deep Sleep Linked to Early Signs of Alzheimer's Disease

Lifestyle Changes, not a Magic Pill, can Change Alzheimer’s

Stool Transplants from Super Donors Could be a Cure-all

Alzheimer’s Vaccine Draws Closer

Can Alzheimer’s be Cured?

Alzheimer’s: New gene may drive earliest brain changes.

Plasticity may make neurons vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.

Frailty a risk factor for dementia.

How sleep “cleanses” your brain and helps lower your dementia risk.

Alzheimer’s disease: Can exercise prevent memory loss?

Early onset Alzheimer’s diagnoses have tripled, new study says.

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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