Right now, there is no treatment to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and nothing that can cure it. So if you or a loved one were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it’s understandable if you’re feeling a bit helpless. But there is some good news: As we speak, there is so much research happening in the world of Alzheimer’s. Scientists around the globe are studying ways to diagnose the condition earlier and treat it more effectively.
As with any new research, we don’t know for sure if or how these developments will make their way to patients. But sometimes, it just feels good to know the progress that’s being made — and remind yourself that you aren’t alone in this fight. There’s a whole scientific community out there that has your back.
Read on to learn more about three promising new research developments that suggest a brighter future is ahead for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families.
1. A new blood test may be up to 94% accurate at identifying early Alzheimer’s brain changes.
One of the most challenging aspects of Alzheimer’s is that a diagnosis typically doesn’t happen until symptoms start to appear, and by then the disease may be too advanced to treat. So many researchers are focusing on finding a way to diagnose the condition earlier. In a study published in the journal Neurology last month, researchers revealed that they created a blood test that was 94% accurate in recognizing brain changes consistent with early Alzheimer’s disease.
The test measures the amount of two proteins, called a-beta 42 and a-beta 40, in the blood. In Alzheimer’s, these proteins start sticking together to form abnormal “plaques,” which lead to Alzheimer’s symptoms. So if the test finds less of these proteins circulating in the blood, that means more plaques are forming in the brain and thus a greater chance Alzheimer’s is developing.
Scientists tested for these proteins, and also combined those results with other factors like genetics and age. The results were then compared to an imaging test to see activity throughout your body called a positron emission tomography (PET) scan and cerebrospinal fluid samples that can also measure these protein levels. Comparing the methods found the same amount of proteins 94% of the time.
Scientists also found that people who had PET scans that were negative for Alzheimer’s at the start of the study, but blood tests that were positive for Alzheimer’s, had a 15-times higher risk of having a positive PET scan by the end of the study four years later. This means the blood test may be more sensitive to picking up Alzheimer’s earlier than existing methods.
The blood test still needs more research, but it could allow more people to be tested for early signs of Alzheimer’s. PET scans and taking samples of cerebrospinal fluid are expensive and time-consuming, not to mention invasive. With a simple blood test to catch the disease earlier, it can provide more time to try different treatments and coping strategies to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
2. A vaccine designed to protect people with Down syndrome from developing Alzheimer’s shows promise.
Alzheimer’s disease is particularly common among people with Down syndrome. People with Down syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome 21, which carries a gene called APP. This gene produces amyloid precursor protein which, if produced in large quantities, leads to the formation of clumps, or “plaques,” in the brain that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s. About 50% of people with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s disease.
A clinical trial is testing the safety and efficacy of a vaccine specifically for people with Down syndrome that stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies that prevent proteins from forming plaques. So far, researchers say the trial is promising, with results indicating fewer plaques formed after using the vaccine, and memory improved. In addition to helping fewer people with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s, the research could help unlock new treatment methods for the general Alzheimer’s population.
3. Following certain lifestyle behaviors could lower your risk of Alzheimer’s by 60%.
Unfortunately, there are currently no drugs that can lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. But a new study found people who participated in four or five particular lifestyle habits could reduce their risk by 60%.
In a study conducted by Rush University Medical Center, more than 2,700 individuals were followed for 10 years and assessed based on five lifestyle factors: diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption and whether they participated in “cognitive stimulation activities” such as reading the news, visiting a library or playing chess.
Higher scores (and better outcomes) were earned by:
- Avoiding red meat, butter, sweets and fried food
- Drinking no more than one glass of wine a day
- Not smoking
- Exercising at least 150 minutes a week
- Doing mentally stimulating activities like playing games and reading at least two or three times a week
The participants who engaged in four or five of these lifestyle strategies were 60% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, compared to those who engaged in zero or one of the lifestyle activities.
Of course, adopting these lifestyle habits doesn’t guarantee you won’t develop Alzheimer’s, and depending on your overall health, some of these might be difficult to achieve. But if you want to feel like you are proactively working to reduce your risk, those five factors are a good place to start.
Research doesn’t always turn into tangible benefits for real people with Alzheimer’s, so it remains to be seen how or when these studies will affect Alzheimer’s care in the future. And there’s no doubt that despite these findings, Alzheimer’s remains a devastating diagnosis. But for now, perhaps we can take comfort in the promising results of this research, and hope it’s a sign of brighter things to come.
Read these stories from our Mighty community for more insight on Alzheimer’s disease:
- Why Sometimes It’s Better to Fall ‘With’ Someone With Dementia Instead of Fighting It
- 10 Strategies That Can Make Life as a Caregiver Easier
- The Ideas That Worked for Me While Caring for My Mom With Alzheimer’s