Researchers are buzzing about new research related to Alzheimer’s disease. Many scientists have been tirelessly trying to find a cure. Now researchers are saying that perhaps doctors should focus on prevention, because actually one third of Alzheimer’s disease cases are preventable.

BBC news reports on the new study. New research shows that there are things doctors can do to prevent Alzheimer’s cases in around 34% of people who develop the brain debilitating disease.  

What are risk factors that lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease? These include: age (the biggest factor), lack of exercise, smoking, depression, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and low educational attainment.

The research was conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge. They found that a third of Alzheimer's cases are linked to lifestyle factors that could be changed, such as lack of exercise and smoking. If doctors warn patients to make modifications in these areas then numerous Alzheimer’s disease cases can be prevented. “The researchers then looked at how reducing these factors could affect the number of future Alzheimer's cases. They found that by reducing each risk factor by 10%, nearly nine million cases of the disease could be prevented by 2050. In the UK, a 10% reduction in risk factors would reduce cases by 8.8%, or 200,000, by 2050, they calculated,” according to the BBC.

Why is this research important? Alzheimer’s disease numbers are steadily rising. BBC reports, “Current estimates suggest that more than 106 million people worldwide will be living with Alzheimer's by 2050 - more than three times the number affected in 2010.”

The researchers stressed the importance of creating healthier ways to go through old age, especially with the world’s elderly population increasing. And Alzheimer’s is the type of disease where people go through serious cognitive decline and need round the clock care in later stages when they can no longer remember how to perform every day tasks and have other difficult issues.

Professor Bayne, from the University of Cambridge, took part in the study and told the BBC how Alzheimer’s can be prevented, “Although there is no single way to treat dementia, we may be able to take steps to reduce our risk of developing dementia at older ages. We know what many of these factors are, and that they are often linked. Simply tackling physical inactivity, for example, will reduce levels of obesity, hypertension and diabetes, and prevent some people from developing dementia. As well as being healthier in old age in general, it's a win-win situation.”

Many experts are endorsing the study and emphasizing the importance of continuing with Alzheimer’s research. Dr. Ridley, head of Alzheimer’s Research UK, told the BBC, “As there is still no certain way to prevent Alzheimer's, research must continue to build the strongest evidence around health and environmental factors to help individuals reduce their risk.”

Researchers are emphasizing the importance of battling physical inactivity. They were a little surprised to find that lack of exercise was linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists are requesting doctors to relay this information to patients and to also stress the fact that physical inactivity is also linked to certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases.

While prevention is important, detecting Alzheimer’s early on is also important. Currently Alzheimer’s is found through spinal taps or PET scans. These are invasive and expensive. More importantly, they are not always even easily available. CBS news reports on a new test that may be able to detect the disease much earlier and more accurately. The test consists of a simple eye exam and may be able to decipher Alzheimer’s disease years before it actually hits a patient.

Today around five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and because those numbers are increasing American scientists have been focusing on creating a test that can detect the disease years and maybe even decades before it actually develops in a person.

Why did researchers choose to focus on an eye test? And how does it work? “These bright dots are proteins called beta amyloids visible in the retina of a patient diagnosed with Alzheimer's diseases. Beta amyloids are typically found in the brain and have been known to be linked to Alzheimer's. The test positively identified 100 percent of the participants who had Alzheimer's,” according to CBS.

Detecting Alzheimer’s disease early on will be beneficial for patients because we currently have medicines that treat the symptoms of the disease; it is therefore better to pick up the disease as soon as possible, so that a patient can start on an available medicine. Also, in order to develop new treatments and therapies, doctors and scientists need to be able to identify people at the earliest stages possible.

Dr. Galvin, a neurologist at New York University Langone Medical Center, commented on the test telling CBS, “What makes it unique is that the retina is actually an extension of the brain and so we think that a lot of the pathology that is occurring in the brain may also be occurring in the retina.” The scientists behind the eye test say it can detect Alzheimer’s disease a whopping fifteen to twenty years before a doctor would otherwise diagnose it.

Researchers have also been looking into a simple smell test. Apparently a declining sense of smell could also be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. The smell test is inexpensive and low-tech. Researchers conducted two separate studies to see if the smell test proved accurate. In both, the minimized ability to detect odors was associated with loss of brain cell function and thereby advancement to Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Growdon, from Harvard Medical School, authored one of the studies, and told CBS about his team’s objective, “We're trying to be able to diagnose Alzheimer's earlier and theoretically deliver drugs to people sooner. Think about cardiovascular disease as a paradigm; the idea is that we would find a way to control the risk factors [before the disease advances].”

Why is a person’s sense of smell a good way of trying to detect whether they have Alzheimer’s disease? A person’s ability to smell is associated with their first cranial nerve, and is often one of the first things to be affected by cognitive decline. Areas of the brain that process odors are particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer's early in the development process of the disease. So a test that shows a decline in this ability shows a reliable sign of Alzheimer’s progression.

Two studies were conducted to see whether the smell test worked. In the first study researchers used a little over two hundred participants and in the second they used almost eight hundred participants. Both studies showed that the test could accurately use sense of smell to detect Alzheimer’s disease in patients. “About 12 percent of those with mild cognitive impairment (problems with memory, language, thinking and judgment that are greater than normal age-related changes) go on to develop Alzheimer's,” according to CBS.

Researchers are hopeful that with the development of these new tests and new modes of prevention they will be able to decrease the number of people facing Alzheimer’s in the next decade by a large margin. If not a decrease, they find that they will at least be able to prevent numbers from rising further the way they have been. 

Gerry Oginski
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