Alzheimer’s disease afflicts an estimated 5.4 million Americans and will impact legions more as baby boomers age. The good news is that scientists are closing in on effective ways to fight the illness. In fact, a breakthrough has triggered a wave of research that may speed the creation of the ultimate weapon: a preventive pill.
For years researchers have known that Alzheimer’s is associated with a sticky substance called beta-amyloid that accumulates in the brain and creates plaques. Patients with the disease are also beset with neurofibrillary tangles, abnormal collections of twisted proteins inside the brain’s neurons. But did amyloid get there first, or did the tangles? Until recently, no one was sure. Then, in the fall of 2014, neurology professors Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD, and Doo Yeon Kim, PhD, at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, reproduced the pathology of Alzheimer’s in a petri dish, something no one had ever done before. Thanks to their work, scientists can now answer questions about how the disease develops and test more drugs more cheaply and quickly. “So far we’ve learned that amyloid comes first,” Tanzi says. “And if we can stop it, we can stop the tangles that do the damage we attribute to dementia.”
Tanzi and Kim are now testing nearly 5,000 drugs in the petri dish and have found two that hold promise: One decreases the brain’s production of a type of amyloid likely to become plaque; the other (already through one clinical trial in Australia) prevents amyloid from clumping, which speeds the disease.
Of course, approval of these drugs is years away. In the meantime, here are three research-backed lifestyle adjustments that may help stave off the disease.
DON’T SKIMP ON SLEEP
The brain has higher levels of amyloid when you’re awake and lower levels while you’re asleep, according to David Holtzman, MD, chair of the Department of Neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “We think being chronically sleep deprived may accelerate your chances of developing Alzheimer’s,” Holtzman says.
TAKE A MEDITATION BREAK
For a clinical study that hasn’t yet been published, Tanzi and meditation expert Deepak Chopra, MD, tracked gene expression in subjects before and after a week of twice-daily meditation sessions lasting 20 minutes each. According to Tanzi, they found that the expression of genes connected to amyloid deposits decreased. “We don’t think it’s just the act of meditation that’s doing it,” says Tanzi. “It’s what meditation is doing to you the rest of the day: improving your sleep and lowering your stress, both of which may have an impact on Alzheimer’s risk.”
HIT THE GYM REGULARLY
A 2015 analysis by the Alzheimer’s Association examined the evidence for modifiable risk factors and found that regular exercise lowers the odds of cognitive decline. “In people who exercise, the hippocampus, which helps consolidate long-term memories, is bigger,” says Kristine Yaffe, MD, professor of psychiatry, neurology, and epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. How much exercise is enough? Researchers haven’t yet determined that, but, Yaffe says, “we do know that walking even a mile a day can make a difference.”
By the Numbers
1 in 9
people ages 65 and older has Alzheimer’s.
is the estimated total economic impact of Alzheimer’s and other dementias on Americans in 2016.