A few weeks ago I shared the story of my Grandma Gladys, who developed Alzheimer’s more than a decade ago.
She doesn’t know any of us anymore. A frail, yet resilient woman of 80, she has to be restrained in her bed at night and locked inside the house or she’ll wander away into the night, necessitating another frantic call to the local police.
Today, Gladys is one of the 4.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers living in the United States, slowly going through the motions of daily life with an absent mind and slipping, ever so slowly, into the grip of death.
But as the Baby Boom generation ages, their children are in for a major shock. By the year 2050, an estimated 14 million Americans will suffer from Alzheimer’s, and the cost of care for these patients is by no means cheap.
Thankfully, more than 20 years of research are yielding a new wave of scientific studies and experimental medications that hope to predict the disease’s onset nearly a decade ahead of time and dramatically slow its progression.
Three studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Prevention of Dementia earlier this month were able to detect neurological changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease before actual symptoms arose.
Research into two experimental medications is showing promise, too, in helping to avoid the buildup of harmful proteins called amyloids, previously linked to heightened risk of Alzheimer’s.
One study, conducted by Lisa Mosconi, a researcher for New York University’s Center for Brain Health, relied on positron emission tomography scans fed to an MRI-linked computer program to track glucose metabolism in the hippocampus, an area of the brain tied to memory.
In the case of Alzheimer’s, insulin is forced out of the brain and into the rest of the body, reducing metabolic activity in the area.
Over time, the hippocampus shrinks and this atrophy is considered a hallmark of the disease in post-mortem exams.
In the NYU study, PET scans were able to detect these changes in the hippocampus as researchers followed 53 healthy people from ages 54 to 80 for time frames ranging from 10 to 24 years.
The longitudinal study, a first of its kind, accurately predicted which patients would develop Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment – a mild, but noticeable trouble with memory – an average of nine years before symptoms surfaced.
A separate research group is attempting to develop a treatment based on the idea, focusing on slowing hippocampus shrinkage by delivering insulin straight to the brain through the nose, thereby improving memory and brain function.
In another study, completed by the University College London, researchers tracked two neurochemicals – N-acetyl aspartate and myoinositol – predicting Alzheimer’s and dementia based on elevated levels of the substances before symptoms appeared.
A simple blood test was the key to a third study, aimed at predicting risk for the disease based on a patient’s levels of harmful amyloid proteins in the blood.
These proteins, especially one called beta-amyloid 42, tend to clump, coat or even kill brain cells at high levels.
Elevated amyloid levels can multiply a patient’s risk for developing cognitive impairments by two or three times normal rates and, while the blood test was less successful at predicting Alzheimer’s onset as a matter of course, it would also be a much less expensive and complicated process for doctors to perform.
On the medicinal front, a medication called Flurizan, now in the late stages of testing, shows promise in delaying the progression of mild Alzheimer’s and, in the case of patients with elevated amyloid levels, a new “intravenous immunoglbulin antibody cocktail” capable of sponging up extra beta-amyloids is showing good results in preliminary testing, according to the American Council on Science and Health.
Finally, non-chemical sources could also make their way into the prescribed regimens of Alzheimer’s patients, too. A study published last week by the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine found that three months of GETO, an herbal extract, could improve the memory skills of users over age 65 who suffered from mild cognitive impairment.
“The ingredients in GETO have been used to treat forgetfulness in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, and merit further study,” said researcher Dr. Jinzhou Tian of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, in a news release. “Chinese herbal medicine is not only less expensive than standard chemical medications, but also more readily accepted by Chinese elderly people.”
The course of study could, indeed, merit further study, but BUCM researchers presenting at the Alzheimer’s Association conference refused to name two of the herbs in the compound, said to contain ginseng, epimedium herb and thinleaf milkwort root.
To keep your memory in tip-top shape, researchers recommend staying active, reading and challenging your brain on a daily basis.
Now there’s a good excuse for doing the crossword every morning.