Five things we learned about Alzheimer’s in 2019

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2019 was an exciting year for the field of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia research, Alzheimer’s Association officials said in a press release. News broke weekly about the causes, risk factors, treatment and prevention of dementia.

In a press release, association officials share five of the most important key insights learned about dementia this year.

• Healthy lifestyle may counteract genetic risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s Association officials said in a press release.

New research reported at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2019 suggests healthy lifestyle choices — including healthy diet, exercise, and cognitive stimulation — may decrease risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Researchers also found lifestyle modifications may reduce risk even in the face of other risk factors, including genetics and pollution, and provide maximum memory benefit when combined.

• An Alzheimer’s blood test may be on the horizon.

A new report at AAIC 2019 described methods for measuring abnormal versions of amyloid protein, which is the building block of one of the hallmark brain lesions of Alzheimer’s disease, in blood and correlating it with established Alzheimer’s markers. Two additional reports describe new blood-based methods for assessing alpha synuclein, which contributes to the brain changes of Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy Bodies, and neurofilament light, which may turn out to be the most reliable indicator of general brain cell damage.

• Alzheimer’s risk and progression differs by sex.

Two-thirds of people living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States are women. There are a number of potential reasons why more women than men have Alzheimer’s or other dementias; a longheld view has been that it is due to women living longer than men, on average, but new evidence reported at AAIC 2019 suggests that may not be the whole story.

“Understanding these sex-specific differences may help us identify and apply customized prevention strategies for different populations against cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias,” said Maria C. Carrillo, PhD, Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer.

• Vision and hearing loss might increase dementia risk — especially when combined.

Two studies reported at AAIC 2019 found that experiencing multiple sensory impairments, such as vision and hearing problems, are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia in older adults.

Research from the UW School of Public Health showed that impairment of either vision or hearing increases the risk of developing dementia, and that impairment in both senses further increases those odds. Meanwhile, researchers at UC San Francisco studied the combined effects of loss of smell, touch, vision and hearing; they found that even mild impairments in multiple senses were associated with an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

• New possible treatments and drug targets for Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers are taking a fresh look at the possible causes for dementia and how drugs might be used to stop the disease in its tracks. More than 500 new candidate drug targets have been identified that address everything from reducing inflammation in the brain to protecting nerve cell health.

To help fund this new research Bill Gates joined the Alzheimer’s Association “Part the Cloud” global research grant program led by philanthropist Mikey Hoag in November. Gates’ award of $10 million will stimulate an additional $20 million in funding by the Alzheimer’s Association, doubling the total clinical research investments to $60 million in just one year. This strategic funding will help propel high-risk, high-reward research aimed at uncovering underlying brain cell changes, timely diagnosis and new treatments for Alzheimer’s and all dementia.

Alzheimer’s Association official said the group is happy to see progress in dementia research this year; adding that researchers are poised to uncover even more in 2020 and beyond.

Increased funding for research from the federal government and nonprofits like the Alzheimer’s Association is driving the rapidly growing body of knowledge about Alzheimer’s disease and all dementia, they said.

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