For over 30 years, medical research studies have been searching for answers about Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the progressive and irreversible brain disease, and the most common form of dementia, which slowly destroys a person’s memory and cognitive skills and takes away their ability to perform even simple tasks. It was hoped that research would eventually lead to effective treatments, a cure, and perhaps even a vaccine to prevent the disease altogether.
While 30+ years’ worth of medical studies has not produced the kind of breakthroughs many have been hoping for, Alzheimer’s research has greatly expanded our knowledge about the root causes of the disease, shown us better ways to help slow the decline in cognitive function for some patients, and led to improved methods for reducing disease symptoms.
More recently, Alzheimer’s research is yielding insight into risk factors for developing the disease, revealing what adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s might do to reduce their individual disease risk well before they reach the prime age when symptoms of Alzheimer’s typically begin. Here are some highlights of what research is revealing about Alzheimer’s disease.
1. Head trauma boosts Alzheimer’s risk.
Age is the leading risk factor for Alzheimer’s and most other types of dementia. More recent studies have revealed a connection between head trauma and future risk for AD. One head injury appears to produce a moderate increase in disease risk, and the risk rises further with each subsequent head injury.
The connection was seen in patients who suffered single-impact traumas, the kind that would occur in a bicycle fall or motorcycle crash, as well in patients receiving repeat-impact hits to the head that happen in boxing, football and other high-contact sports. The research should serve as an important reminder to wear protective head gear and quality helmets that fit properly, and make sure your children do as well.
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2. Early-onset Alzheimer's shows distinct risk factors.
Many people assume that your Alzheimer’s risk is much higher if a parent or close family member has the disease. The reality, supported by the results of several studies, is quite different: hereditary Alzheimer’s accounts for only about five percent (5%) of all cases of AD.
While having a close family member with the disease probably does result in a slightly higher risk for the disease, studies of hereditary Alzheimer’s patients have revealed some distinct characteristics, including the fact that many of the patients had the early-onset form of the disease, with symptoms typically beginning when patients are in their early-to-mid-50s. Knowing what the research has shown, those with a family history of AD should be mindful about possible symptoms beginning around age 50.
A separate study found that adults who had high levels of LDL cholesterol, known as the “bad cholesterol”, were more likely to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s than adults with normal LDL levels. While the study did not produce a definitive finding to show a causal link between LDL and the disease, the evidence reveals that LDL cholesterol might have an impact on the development of the disease. The same study found no link between HDL cholesterol and Alzheimer’s.
3. Sleep quality can affect Alzheimer’s risk.
Scientists studying the potential impact of sleep on a person’s risk of developing AD found that adults who saw sleep quality decline during their 40s and 50s had higher amounts of beta-amyloid protein in their brains many years later. Beta-amyloid protein is a primary risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
And adults whose sleep quality declined in their 50s and 60s had more tau protein tangles, also a primary Alzheimer’s risk factor. Based on these findings, adults who experience sleep disruptions, altered sleep patterns, insomnia or other changes in sleep habits should consult a doctor to discuss possible interventions. Although these studies show that sleep may have an impact on Alzheimer’s risk, more studies are needed to confirm such relationship.
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4. Proper hydration is crucial to brain health.
About 60% of the human body is water; for the brain, it is even higher — nearly 75% water content. So even mild dehydration can cause neurological issues and cognitive impairment. Other symptoms may include brain fatigue, mood problems and sleep difficulties. Brains of people who are not sufficiently hydrated will show many areas of the brain as becoming thinner and losing volume over time.
Many Alzheimer’s patients fail to drink a sufficient volume of water on a daily basis. One contributing factor is the aging process, which reduces the ability to sense thirst. Some patients simply forget to drink water, while others may be unnerved by its clear, non-colored characteristics and refuse to drink it. Staying hydrated and consistently drinking 6 to 8 eight-ounce servings of water per day (1.5 to 2 liters daily) is a healthy habit for your brain.
Research continues to shed light on a number of aspects of Alzheimer’s disease, from diagnosis and treatment to causes and risk factors. Compared to even five or 10 years ago, we now have significantly more knowledge about the disease and the things within a person’s control that are likely to reduce one’s own Alzheimer’s risk.
By Dr. Ketchai Suavansri
, Neurologist specializing in Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology and Alzheimer's disease at the Neurology Center, Bumrungrad International Hospital
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