Scientists who attended the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Copenhagen this month seem energized from their collaborative effort. News stories will be filtering out for weeks to come about the studies presented at the conference. However, to me, one of the most interesting and encouraging conclusions so far is that lifestyle changes may hold back Alzheimer’s symptoms for up to 10 years.
Over the last decade, there have been many previous attempts to determine whether or not people can decrease their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by increasing exercise - both mental and physical - and maintaining a healthy diet. These efforts were small and experts considered them only borderline successful, or in some cases, complete failures. In fact, at a 2009 meeting convened by the National Institutes of Health to examine the state of science in Alzheimer’s disease, an independent review committee said that it found "no compelling evidence to show the disease could be prevented with lifestyle interventions."
That declaration basically left all hope of helping people avoid Alzheimer’s disease in the hands of drug manufacturers. Unfortunately, no drugs have yet proven to be the magic bullet that pharmaceutical companies, researchers, and the public had hoped for.
Accepting this current failure to produce a drug that is of real help to people with the disease has been a struggle for researchers at large. There are still many questions about exactly what triggers Alzheimer’s disease and whether or not there is just one cause or if there are several. Researchers will continue to try to solve the puzzle. Most likely they will eventually develop a method that can reliably prevent or cure Alzheimer’s through pharmaceutical intervention. Meanwhile, as is often the case, acceptance of this current failure has led to studies that seem to have produced some hope on a more basic level.
Lifestyle changes may delay Alzheimer’s symptoms from five to 10 years
Several large studies have changed the attitude of those who felt that lifestyle didn’t matter when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease. These studies are showing that exercising both body and mind, as well as maintaining a healthy weight, may for now be our greatest hope.
According to Pierre Tariot, director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, the mood of scientists has shifted toward prevention. Tariot says that many experts are “cautiously optimistic” about the theory that lifestyle changes can keep many people from experiencing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
One of the largest randomized prevention trials to date, known as Finger, was conducted in Finland. This trial concluded that intervention involving exercise, diet and other behavioral changes could significantly improved overall cognitive functioning in volunteers when compared with volunteers in a control group. The study spanned a two-year timeframe.
Experts say that Finger is only one of approximately 25 related studies that are underway. More clinical trials are ready to begin that will examine different preventive strategies in cognitively normal people or those with slight memory loss that puts them at risk for developing dementia.
The national Alzheimer’s Association statistics predict that the number of people with Alzheimer’s will triple by 2050. They say that if the disease could be delayed by just five years, the number of people with Alzheimer’s at age 65 in 2050 could be reduced by nearly six million people.
Laurie Ryan, chief of the Dementias of Aging branch at the National Institute on Aging, says that “Forestalling the appearance of symptoms by five to 10 years would have a tremendous public health impact and essentially would allow people to live the rest of their lives without real symptoms.”
For many of us this is welcome news. When headlines continue to announce the failure of yet another drug that scientists had hoped would be the answer to the Alzheimer’s epidemic it’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless.
This new information should help us feel a bit more positive about our chances of avoiding the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. We have at least some control over our approach to healthy living. While there is no guarantee that we will be one of the people who will delay Alzheimer’s symptoms, a healthy lifestyle is the path toward better heart health and fewer health problems in general. Now that there’s some agreement among scientists that a healthy lifestyle may also protect our brain, more of us are likely to take Alzheimer’s prevention seriously.
Wang, S. (2014, July 15) Alzheimer’s Disease Fight Focuses on Preventive Treatment: Delaying Onset by Five Years Could Greatly Reduce the Number of Patients. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://online.wsj.com/articles/alzheimers-disease-fight-focuses-on-preventive-treatment-1405396803
Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s. Exercise and a Healthy Lifestyle Reduce Dementia Risk, Retrieved from https://www.alzinfo.org/07/articles/prevention-and-wellness/exercise-and-a-healthy-lifestyle-reduce-dementia-risk?awt_l=OQpOY&awt_m=IoKXAHghTtclTD
Reynolds, G. (2014, July 2) Can Exercise Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk? New York Times. Retrieved from https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/02/can-exercise-reduce-alzheimers-risk/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_r=0
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.