Progress in Alzheimer's Research for Effective Treatments
Perhaps one of the greatest fears that people face as they age is developing Alzheimer’s disease. This chronic and incurable disease afflicts more than five million Americans who suffer gradual onset and progression of memory and other cognitive losses to the extent that they can no longer care for themselves.
Over 100 years ago, Dr. Alois Alzheimer first described the abnormal brain protein deposits – amyloid plaques and tau tangles – that accumulate in brain regions that control mental function. Scientists continue to debate whether the plaques or tangles cause the disease or result from some other process. In support of the amyloid plaque hypothesis was the discovery of genetic mutations causing abnormal amyloid deposits in rare Alzheimer’s families. Other research has demonstrated that tau tangles correlate with the disease symptoms much more than do amyloid plaques.
In their search for effective treatments to modify the disease course or even halt it, scientists have developed and tested methods to prevent the build-up of these deposits. Most of the clinical trials have focused on the amyloid protein, and no new treatments have yet been successful. New research from University of North Florida neuroscientists suggests that emphasis on tau may be the key to innovative interventions.
The scientific team studied 1,400 deceased Alzheimer’s victims’ brains to help elucidate the importance of tau versus amyloid as an initiator of cognitive decline. Following extensive study, the team concluded that tau was the driving force. When functioning normally, these tau proteins serve to stabilize brain cells and assist them in passing messages from cell to cell, which is critical to normal memory function. With Alzheimer’s disease, the tau proteins lose their normal function and build up into abnormal deposits. When enough tau build-up, brain cells die off.
This new discovery will likely encourage more research aimed at discovering a new drug that disrupts tau accumulation, but other intervention strategies that dampen the over-excited inflammatory system of the Alzheimer’s brain may be just as important for a new breakthrough. Research has shown that excessive inflammation may be attacking normal brain tissue and methods to beat inflammation may delay the onset of symptoms. As scientists continue to search for the answers in drug discovery, they have also demonstrated that lifestyle strategies have a tremendous impact on brain health as we age.
Getting a good night’s sleep, consuming omega-3 fats and exercise all reduce inflammation. In fact, regular physical exercise, stress management, healthy diet, and mental stimulation may have a greater impact on brain health than genetic factors. In my new book, 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, I translate the latest science on how to keep our brains young and improve memory performance into practical strategies that people can start applying right away.
Both cardiovascular conditioning and strength training have been shown to improve brain function and cognitive abilities. One study demonstrated that walking briskly just 90 minutes each week lowers the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Chronic stress can cause the brain’s memory centers to shrink and impair learning and recall. Studies of tai chi, meditation, yoga and other stress management exercises have demonstrated that they improve mood and memory.
A diet rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats from fish and nuts and anti-oxidant fruits and vegetables is associated with better brain health. Other research has confirmed a link between obesity and risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The good new is that when people begin to lose weight, their memory performance improves quickly.
Simple memory techniques that I teach in my book can rapidly help people compensate for their age-related memory slips. It is possible to target the most common complaints of forgetting such as names and faces, where we place keys and eyeglasses, and tip-of-the-tongue memory slips when the word or name you are trying to recall does not immediately roll off the tip of your tongue.
Scientists have estimated that these and other modifiable risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s (e.g., hypertension, diabetes, smoking) could account for nearly half of the cases of the disease worldwide. So now is the time to take control of our brain health. In order to halt the rising tide of Alzheimer’s and delay symptom onset, we need to do whatever we can to fight back this brain-aging process and begin enjoying the benefits of a younger brain – one that thinks fast, learns effectively, and remembers well.
Gary Small, MD. Co-author of 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain. Director, UCLA Longevity Center.