The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC), 14-19 July 2012, in Canada drew thousands of experts from around the world to share latest thinking and research into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s. Some of the highlights are covered below.
Possible ‘early’ warning signs of Alzheimer’s
Changes in gait/walking
A collection of studies presented at the conference indicated that changes to the way you walk could be a sign of Alzheimer’s. Shorter, slower strides and changes in walking rhythm appeared to be associated with decline in memory function. In the future, walking tests could become a simple and inexpensive way to detect early cognitive decline and determine the need for further evaluation. Ongoing at-home monitoring appeared to provide more accurate results than a one-off test.
Fatty compounds in the blood
High levels of a fat compound called ceramide may be linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Individuals with the highest levels were ten times more likely to develop the disease. However, this preliminary study was reasonably small. Results warrant further investigation before any conclusions can be made and an ‘early indicator’ test is developed.
Risk factors linked to alcohol and sleep
The findings presented at the AAIC on alcohol consumption were the first to report cognitive effects of binge drinking in older people. It is well documented that drink kills brain cells but results detailing the impact on neurological health indicate a larger problem. Findings suggest Doctors should be aware of the effect of changing drinking habits among older people, particularly as they struggle to cope with old age or deal with loss.
Over 65s in the study who reported heavy drinking at least twice a month were more than twice as likely to have the greatest decline in both cognitive function and memory. A separate 20 year-study of older women looking at patters of drinking and risk to cognitive impairment seemed to endorse the damaging effects of moderate to high use of alcohol at all stages of life.
Too much as well as too little sleep was indicated as a risk factor for cognitive decline. It was revealed that those who slept fewer than five hours per day or more than nine hours per day had decreased brain function compared with those who slept for an optimal 7 hours. In addition, levels of a protein called amyloid beta, indicative of Alzheimer’s, were found to change in those sleeping more or less than 7 hours.
Variability in sleep patterns and disrupted sleep were also found to cause issues. Older individuals with sleep disorders like sleep apnea were found to have twice the odds of developing mild cognitive impairment or dementia. The authors suggest that “health practitioners should consider assessing older people with sleep disorders for changes in cognition.” They add “with additional long-term research, treatment of sleep disorders may be a promising method of delaying the development of MCI and dementia."
The benefits of exercise
Four studies showed the effects of different types of exercise on cognitive function in healthy adults and those with mild cognitive decline.
Promise of new treatments
We’re not there yet but the hope is that new therapies will help stave off disease progression or even prevent the disease from developing. Although, the growing consensus is that we need to be able to diagnose and intervene early enough if this is to be achieved in the future. There’s particular interest in new approaches which aim to reduce or prevent the formation of sticky plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s. One of these studies generated news headlines after four patients with Alzheimer’s appeared to fare well with no mental decline at three years. We don’t know yet whether that’s because of the treatment or just the natural course of their disease, which is sometimes the case. Other patients in the study didn’t do so well. The study was too small to make any definite conclusions so we’ll need to wait for results from a larger Phase III study. In the meantime, ongoing research into potential new ways of treating Alzheimer’s continues.
Links: Alzheimer’s Association International Conference – press releases and abstracts
This week, 20-26 May, is Dementia Awareness Week the Alzheimer’s Society’s annual campaign.
The theme of the campaign is ‘Remember the person’ and the aim is to not only spread awareness and understanding of dementia but to also encourage people to remember there is more to a person than the disease.
A recent study by the Alzheimer’s Society and Saga Homecare revealed that nearly two thirds of Britons know someone with dementia. However, those aged 18-24 are more likely to want to know about the condition than people aged 55 and over, who are more at risk.
The Alzheimer’s Society is encouraging everyone to spread these five simple facts about dementia:
For more information on the early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s please explore this website.
Many people know all too well the devastating effect that dementia can have on the brain, yet it has been found that our memory for music appears to remain undiminished.
Singing for the Brain is a choir run by the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK for people with dementia and their carers. The weekly sessions see even the most seriously affected individuals singing along merrily to tunes of their youth. It seems that music also allows individuals to demonstrate a capacity to remember and learn through increased responses, retention of new lyrics and the creation of new relationships.
Ms Jill Dean, Singing for the Brain, Regional Leader, recently told The Times ‘’We did ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’ and there was a couple singing it looking into each other’s eyes, giggling and holding hands, and the rest of the room were dissolving into tears’.”
For more information, visit the Alzheimer's Society.