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AAIC 2017 reveals great strides in research

AAIC 2017 reveals great strides in research

By Nalini Sen, Director, Alzheimer Society Research Program

I had the opportunity to attend this year’s annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in London, UK. This conference brings together some of the world’s leading researchers and clinicians in dementia treatment, detection and prevention. And with a record number of presentations—3300 in all—I have to admit, I was awestruck. Here are a few takeaways I would like to share with you:

Stress can age your brain

How we manage stress is even more important than was previously thought. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin studied 1320 people who had experienced stressful events like losing a job, getting a divorce or grieving the death of a family member. What did they find? A single stressful experience can age your brain by four years! Their findings reaffirm that healthy lifestyle habits matter.

Your brain needs a good night rest

Getting good sleep is as important as getting enough sleep. In a 516-person study, researchers from Wheaton College found greater instances of beta amyloid deposits in the brains of those with sleep disordered breathing and noticed that these deposits accumulated faster over time. Sleep disordered breathing is common. It includes hypopnea (under breathing) and apnea (not breathing) during sleep. While researchers need to do more investigative work, if we can better treat these sleep disorders, we may be able to reduce the risk of dementia or possibly delay the progression of the disease where it has already occurred.

Other presentations at AAIC reported on advancements in diagnosing dementia, which is a complicated and often a long process:

PET brain scans can improve diagnosis

For example, researchers from Sweden reported a 68 per cent increase in dementia diagnoses when PET brain scans were used in a small test sample of 135 people with memory problems. PET scans help identify whether amyloid plaques, the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, are present in the brain. It does this by injecting a special dye with radioactive tracers into the arm which is then and absorbed by the organs and tissues.

Steps closer to a dementia blood test

In another study, Washington University researchers were able to measure amyloid beta in the cerebrospinal fluid (a fluid in the brain) with 89 per cent accuracy. Amyloid beta and tau protein which accumulate in the brain are triggers for Alzheimer’s disease. While more study is needed, a blood test for dementia may soon become available. This kind of test could identify those at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease even years before symptoms appear.

One thing was clear at this year’s AAIC conference: Researchers around the world are working diligently to find a cure and identify new ways of diagnosing dementia earlier. And while they continue their search, there is now even more evidence that we can take steps to reduce our risk of developing dementia by living a healthier lifestyle.

Learn more about what you can do to keep your brain healthy at alzheimer.ca/brainhealth.

Dementia and air pollution: should we flee to the country?

Dementia and air pollution: should we flee to the country?

Could living in a major city increase your risk of dementia? A new study suggests that may be the case.

After studying over two million Ontarians over an 11-year period, researchers found that the closer they lived to a major roadway, the more likely they were to develop dementia. Those who had lived in urban areas for a long time were even more likely to develop the condition than those who had moved more recently.

These findings suggest one culprit in particular: air pollution. Of course, the study didn’t prove that air pollution causes dementia – only that there is some sort of relationship. But this isn’t the first major study to find an association between air pollution and a decline in brain function in middle-aged and older adults.

So does this mean that we should all flock to the country? Not so fast.

The increased risk shown in the study is only slightly higher, and while these results might help us understand a bit more about what causes dementia in certain circumstances, more research needs to be done.

The “brew” of different toxins that make up air pollution make it difficult to attribute the effect to one specific factor, and there are other factors besides air pollution that may come into play.

Yet, air pollution is an area worthy of more study because it has other indirect but very important effects on the brain. Air pollution may contribute to conditions like pulmonary disease, heart disease and stroke, which we know can increase a person’s chances of developing dementia. Cardiovascular disease, in particular, can lead to vascular dementia.

While the findings of this new study are preliminary, they do have important implications for public health. We need to do more to control and reduce air pollution and protect our most vulnerable citizens.

And while we still don’t fully understand the causes of dementia, there are things we can do right now to reduce our risk. More physical activity, eating a heart-healthy diet, quitting smoking, challenging our brains and staying socially connected are all essential for brain health.