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Alzheimer's Disease

Scientists Look for Ways to Prevent and Treat Alzheimer’s

Research reveals new ways to detect the disease

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— Frank Siteman/Science Faction/Corbis

Researchers report they have valuable new tools to diagnose and predict Alzheimer’s disease and have added to the growing body of evidence that some vitamins and exercise might help lower a person’s risk. But the new science presented at the international Alzheimer’s Association conference this week in Honolulu did not provide what patients and families want most—a treatment for the 5.3 million Americans with this devastating disease.

Still, scientists say that as they continue to unravel the complicated chemistry of the Alzheimer’s brain, they move closer each day to a therapy that works.

“We desperately need to know more about the causes of Alzheimer’s, and the factors that affect our risk of getting or not getting the disease,” said William Thies, chief medical officer of the Alzheimer’s Association. “This kind of research will provide more targets for therapies and prevention strategies.”

The following is a roundup of some of the most important research to come out of the conference and medical journals this week and includes links to more detailed reporting from the AARP Bulletin.

Treatment

  • Insulin nose spray: A small drug trial testing insulin in the form of a nose spray to improve brain function showed some promising results. For years, Alzheimer’s has been linked to diabetes, because in both cases the body has trouble processing insulin. Researchers, including Suzanne Craft of the University of Washington in Seattle, believe that restoring normal insulin function in the brain could prove to be a treatment for Alzheimer’s. The researchers gave the insulin spray or a placebo to about 100 people with the disease and found that people who used the spray scored better on memory tests than those who did not use the insulin. Patients with a higher dose of insulin showed improvement in daily living activities but no improvement in cognition. The researchers say the results are encouraging enough to warrant a large trial.


Prevention

  • Vitamin D: Adequate levels of the “sunshine vitamin” can help protect against impaired thinking and dementia later in life. A new British study found that low levels of vitamin D in older adults can cause problems with memory, attention and logic. The study, which examined more than 3,000 adults age 65 and older, found that those who were severely vitamin D deficient were nearly four times more likely to perform poorly on tests of memory and attention. Read more in “Vitamin D Deficiency Linked to Dementia.”

  • Moderate to heavy exercise: Physical activity was found to lower the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, especially in men. Looking at data from a long-running study tracking the heart health of several thousand people, researchers at Harvard University found that older men who regularly participated in moderate to heavy physical activity had a 40 percent lower risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s, while those with the least amount of physical activity were 45 percent more likely to experience severe cognitive decline. Researchers say that maintaining even moderate levels of physical activity is a good way to lower the risk for dementia even into your 80s.

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