The latest research released at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Toronto suggests that people who work closely with fellow humans, rather than machines or data, may be better positioned to manage the onset of Alzheimer's.
The study data shows that a cognitively stimulating lifestyle may even counteract the negative cognitive effects of an unhealthy diet, which has been associated with memory and thinking declines in older adults.
The 2014 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference headlined lifestyle changes as one way to at least put off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. These new studies add breadth and depth to that information.
The researchers say that “the evidence is increasingly clear that lifestyle factors play an important role in the development and progress of Alzheimer’s and dementia, and should be a key consideration in treatment and prevention of the disease.”
I interviewed Dr. Heather Snyder, Director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association, to learn more about the exciting information revealed at this international conference. Dr. Snyder oversees the Alzheimer's Association's International Research Grant Program and manages a collaborative project with the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health. She’s working to develop an International Alzheimer’s Disease Research Portfolio.
CBB: Dr. Snyder, could you please explain what the new studies say concerning our work environments and how this environment links to Alzheimer’s?
Dr. S: Absolutely I’m here with 5,000 scientists from 70 countries in Toronto at the Alzheimer’s Association’s International Conference, and we’ve seen some studies that have looked at our job environment -- both the complex thinking and the social interaction. Really it’s jobs that combine those two factors that seem to be the most beneficial in being able to withstand some of the brain changes that we all have, but this could possibly extend to dementia and that really underscores the fact that our brains are a muscles and we need to exercise it for overall brain health.
CBB: That’s fantastic information because it gives us something that we can do about Alzheimer's prevention that’s positive. Along those lines, what about computers? Most work situations use computers and that’s part of our complex thinking. Did they look at the effect of computer use in this study?
Dr. S: In this particular study, they did not look at the effect of computers. There are other studies that look at different ways that we are using our brain. In fact, here at AAIC, we saw a large study that had followed a group of people over ten years. One of the their particular interventions that they tested was a specific computerized cognitive training intervention or a brain game that uses speed of processing to see how quickly we process information that we see on the screen. It’s suggested that it might be beneficial over a period of time in maintaining our memories, our function, our reasoning and also possibly for our risk of dementia. It’s one study, and it needs to certainly be confirmed in larger and more diverse populations, but it does really add to that idea of use it or lose it.
CBB: In the work that I do, many people are simply looking for a drug that will cure the disease. Could you please tell us why these studies about social engagement and the work place are significant to the understanding of Alzheimer’s and the treatment for the disease?
Dr. S: Absolutely! They are adding to this overall understanding that we continue to grow about what are some lifestyle behaviors that we can continue with or we should adopt to keep our brain as healthy as we can as we age. In fact the Alzheimer’s Association has the “Ten Ways to Love Your Brain” that’s based on the science of really thinking about what we can do now.
What can we do to keep our brains healthy as we can? The tips include use it or lose it, staying socially and physically active, eating a brain-healthy diet including dark leafy vegetables. Those types of things, but really it's putting it all together that going to be most beneficial to our brain health.
CBB: There were several studies that were reported on at the conference. Could you please tell us more about the other studies and how they relate to finding a cure?
Dr. S: We know that when we have that intervention, whether it’s a lifestyle change, a medication or some combination of those, we need to be able to identify individuals at the earliest time point before our loved ones are losing their memories. In fact we saw several exciting studies that suggest that our nose, our sense of smell might be linked to the brain changes that are associated with Alzheimer’s. When you think about it, this could be an easy to administer tool in physician’s toolbox to detect the individuals who should have the more expensive, more invasive follow up. Because we know that early detection is so important to our families.
CBB: I’m writing a slide show about new tests for Alzheimer's diagnosis that will be coming to our doctor’s offices. Are there certain odors or certain smells that are used for this test?
Dr. S: Actually it’s a specific tool, a specific, validated questionnaire that was developed at the University of Pennsylvania that’s been used in a number of studies. What we’re seeing this year in AAIC is several large studies that are actually applying this tool to quantify, to measure the loss of smell and give it a number. One of the next steps to take before it can be used in primetime is that we need to have that standardized so whether you’re in New York, if you’re in Philadelphia, if you’re in California or if you’re in in Paris we need to have that standardized as a potential tool to detect these earliest changes.
CBB: Is this a tool that doctors would be able to use in the office rather than something more expensive?
Dr. S: That’s one of the ideas. We continue to see tools that are looking to be developed. In fact another study presented here at AAIC suggests that maybe there are behavioral changes that we can quantify, that we can measure.
If you’ve had a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease you know that it’s not necessarily the memory changes that you identify first in your loved one but actually personality changes. Can we quantify that and use it in an easy to administer tool. We need to have a tool box that can be available for healthcare providers to get that accurate and early diagnosis.
CBB: Since there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, early detection is stressed. Can you explain for our readers why early detection for a disease that is not yet curable is so important?
Dr. S: There are** many reasons why early detection and diagnosis is so important**. You can make plans for their care, their financial future with their loved ones before they progress, before they lose their memory but they can you can also take advantage of the latest in clinical trials. There are current medications that, although they don’t stop or prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, can be beneficial. There’s one study, in fact, that was presented here at AAIC, that suggest that individuals who use those medications actually have lower mortality - lower death rates and a lower cost of care over a period of time. We know that families understand what is happening to their loved one and with access to a community resource like the Alzheimer’s Association there are better outcomes overall, not only for the individual with the disease but for their entire family unit.
CBB: Can you tell us where we can get more information about Alzheimer’s and the new methods of treatment and diagnosis?
Dr. S: You can go to the Alzheimer’s website at www.alz.org or call 1-800-272-3900.
CBB: The research presented at the conference gives all of us hope that progress that is being made toward understanding Alzheimer’s and how it relates to a cure.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver having spent over two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” as well as a contributor to several additional books on caregiving and dementia. Her websites can be accessed at www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook Minding Our Elders.