Alzheimer’s cases could nearly triple by 2050. Fortunately, the past few years have brought new discoveries, tests and treatments, plus more effective strategies for brain health. Read below for 13 exciting new developments.
- Healthy Heart = Healthy Brain
Some people think the brain operates outside the rules that govern the rest of the body. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says neurologist Dr David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain. Many factors that raise your risk of heart disease (unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, obesity, sedentary lifestyle) threaten brain health. These factors can lead to restricted blood flow, inflammation and clots.
Don’t forget: Think of your next blood test as a report card on your brain as well as your heart. Likewise, view your cardiologist as an early-warning neurologist, says Men’s Health advisor Dr Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of translational neuroscience at Duke School of Medicine.
- Bacteria Could Help Anxiety and Depression
Intestinal bacteria produce mood-influencing chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, which reach the brain via the bloodstream. Scientists are developing bacterial treatments in hopes of rebalancing brain chemicals to treat conditions like depression and anxiety. Until then, eat more fermented foods packed with good bacteria.
- Antibiotics Could Compromise Memory
The damage antibiotics can do to the beneficial microbes in your gut is well established. And now it appears that they can also negatively affect your brain. A recent animal study in the journal Cell Reports suggests that they may inhibit new cell growth in the brain region associated with recall.
Cell Reports is a new open-access, online-only journal from Cell Press. Cell Reports offers the quality, rigor, and visibility you would expect from Cell Press, combined with the convenience of open access.
Don’t forget: Take antibiotics only when necessary at the direction of your doctor. You may want to pair them with a probiotic supplement, which might help restore the good gut bugs killed by the medicine.
- This Simple Sniff Test is an Early-warning System for Alzheimer’s
Mayo Clinic researchers gave a standardised smell test to 1,430 people with an average age of 80. The sniff test was designed to assess how accurately the oldsters could identify a dozen scents, including cherry, lemon, soap and roses. Those who scored lowest had the highest risk of developing memory problems and/or Alzheimer’s disease. Experts speculate that the brain’s smell and memory centres may be linked.
Don’t forget: Take a whiff of Jif if you’re older or have Alzheimer’s in your family. Peanut butter is one of the scents scientists have used to test for developing brain disorders. In a University of Florida study, people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s were less able to detect PB with their left nostril than with their right. If you failed the test, don’t panic, but say something to your doctor.
- Exercise is Like Super-fertiliser for the Brain
Physical activity can spur growth of new neurons in parts of the brain that control memory. In a study of seniors published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers found that even moderate exercise, such as gardening and dancing, promoted the formation of neurons in these brain areas and reduced Alzheimer’s risk by half. Aim for 150 minutes a week of cardio, spread over three to five days. Dr Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, advises using some of that time for interval training spurts of intense effort alternating with active recovery periods. “Exercise may turn out to be one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves from Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.
- Alzheimer’s Screenings Will Soon be Routine
Part of the diagnostic challenge with Alzheimer’s is that doctors can’t easily see what’s going on. That’s changing. “We can now successfully image Alzheimer’s proteins in the brain,” says Dr Petersen.
That’s a major advance. The research is helping neurologists develop therapies to stall the progression, just as cardiologists do with arteriosclerosis. “We’re trying to detect the ‘cholesterol of Alzheimer’s,’” he says. Imaging technology can also show brain shrinkage, reduced cell activity and amyloid plaque build-up.
Don’t forget: Until these tests go mainstream, take periodic standardised tests to evaluate memory, problem-solving and thinking skills. Ask your doctor about these.
- Germs Take the Blame for Some Brain Problems
No matter how clean we try to keep our thoughts, our brains contain tens of thousands of dormant microbes, says Dr Doraiswamy. Scientists suspect that some bad bugs can be roused by triggers such as stress or certain drugs, after which they contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s.
Don’t forget: Numerous microbes – like the ones associated with herpes, toxoplasmosis, HIV, Lyme disease and the human form of mad cow disease – could infect your brain and hijack your cognitive processes. In fact, Alzheimer’s and other dementias may turn out to be bug-induced in some way that’s not yet fully understood. In other words, you could conceivably “catch” a brain disorder.
- Make Sure Diabetes Doesn’t Raise Your Risk
The diabetes link to cognitive problems is no secret, but the connection is growing stronger. One of the earliest brain deficits in people at risk for Alzheimer’s is an inability of the nerve cells to use glucose, their main fuel. Dr Doraiswamy calls this “diabetes of the brain.” Scientists are testing exercise, low-glycaemic- index diets and antidiabetic drugs as preventive approaches to Alzheimer’s.
Don’t forget: Get tested for diabetes, and if you have it or are at risk, work with your physician on lifestyle changes.
- Learn More Stuff to Offset Mental Decline
Continually challenging yourself with new and complex tasks; chess, a new sport, a second language, a musical instrument, can strengthen or open new lines of communication among neurons. With piano lessons, for example, neural networks will expand between your brain’s hearing and movement centres. Becoming a serial learner creates a reserve of brainpower. “Even if disease knocks out part of the brain, you have kind of redundant cellphone towers as back-up,” says Dr Doraiswamy.
Don’t forget: In July, a 10-year study showed that a brain game that shortens your response time may also reduce your dementia risk. “If these findings can be replicated, it will be a game changer,” says Dr Doraiswamy.
- Your brain’s favourite cuisine is Mediterranean
The brains of people who ate the Mediterranean way – fruits, vegetables, legumes, non-processed grains, fresh fish, olive oil and red wine – were younger-looking in autopsy studies, says Dr Doraiswamy. In one study, people on the so-called Mind (Mediterranean Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, which focuses on plant-based nutrition, had up to a 53 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s.
- Testosterone May Be a Brain Booster
Testosterone therapy is often touted as a fountain of youth. And in the brain of someone with low T, adding the hormone appears to help prevent damage from oxidative stress – the build-up of harmful byproducts produced by ageing cells.
But there’s a catch: Once that stress reaches a certain threshold, adding T can actually accelerate brain damage, warns Rebecca Cunningham, who studies hormones at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Don’t forget: “The only way to know if androgen therapy is right for you is to see a doctor who knows your full health profile and history,” says Rebecca. Low testosterone is one of many risk factors for brain disease, not a guarantee you’ll develop it.
- Researchers Now Recognise the Concept of “Mixed Dementia”
In the early stages of vascular dementia, patients show declines in judgement, decision making, planning and reasoning. Symptoms of early-stage Alzheimer’s are chiefly memory related. But as each disease progresses, the symptoms overlap. Doctors now recognise that many people have a blend of the two, known as mixed dementia.
Don’t forget: Knowing the relationship between the conditions could help doctors manage the disease, says Dr Doraiswamy.
- Two New Drugs to Watch
Eli Lilly’s solane-zumab and Biogen’s aducanumab are being studied for early Alzheimer’s. Both attack amyloid plaques in the brain, usually considered the culprit behind reduced mental performance. In early studies, people on each of those drugs seemed to show less cognitive decline than the placebo groups did.