Caring Currents

Research Highlights From Global Alzheimer's Conference

Last updated: Jul 21, 2009

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Image by Le Petit Poulailler used under the creative commons attribution no derivs license.

A summer bumper crop of Alzheimer's disease and dementia headlines sprang out of last week's 2009 Alzheimer's Association International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease in Vienna, Austria. Some headlines worth highlighting:

Avoiding dementia yourself--what works:

  • One more time, it's exercise. More evidence for maintaining or even increasing physical activity throughout life. Sedentary adults had the worse cognitive functioning at the start of one study and fastest rates of decline. Another study showed that the benefit was greatest to people who did not have the [apoe-E4 gene] ( type that's linked to the highest risk of developing Alzheimer's.

  • Also effective: A heart-healthy diet. Older adults who most closely followed the so-called [DASH diet] ( (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) were least likely to have memory or attention problems or to develop dementia. And people with growing health problems may have the best incentive to try a dietary fix: A separate Swedish study found that people ages 75 and older are at highest risk when they have high blood sugar (in the so-called "pre-diabetes level") as well as high blood pressure.

  • Toast your memory with that dinnertime cocktail. Good news for mild tipplers: One to two drinks a day is linked to a 37 percent lowered risk of developing dementia among older adults, compared with abstainers. Wake Forest University researchers don't recommend those who don't drink to start the habit in midlife; it may still be that something about the drinkers' overall lifestyle, not the actual beverage imbibed, is what's protective against dementia. Also worth noting: People with mild cognitive impairment who drink functioned worse with any level of alcohol intake.

  • Statins? Maybe. Cholesterol-lowering drug therapy cut the risk of developing dementia 57 percent, say Finnish researchers. But they aren't sure yet what kind of statins.

Promising therapies that slow dementia:

  • Turns out it's great to have a caregiver who cares and whom the person feels close to. [More details here.] (

  • More incentive to stay social. A Japanese study of elderly men finds decreasing socialization from mid-life to late-life added to dementia risk.

  • And here's one ineffective "treatment": DHA Two large government-funded studies, one government-funded, say the omega-3 fatty acid does not reduce dementia in people with mild to moderate memory loss, adding to the thinking that it's a waste of money to use the supplement for this purpose.

On the ups and downs of caregiving:

  • The job doesn't get easier. As the dependence of an Alzheimer's patient grows, so, alas, does the time that must be devoted to caregiving, the lack of family support, and the disruption of a caregiver's schedule, reports an international long-term study.

  • People with Alzheimer's have more health problems than people without Alzheimer's. Researchers in Bath, England, say Alzheimer's patients have a five-fold higher risk of bedsores, four-fold increase in seizures, three-fold higher risk of hip fractures and depression, and twice the incidence of pneumonia.

And a few more surprises:

  • Beta amyloid may not be the bad guy? The promising drug Dimebon (a Russian antihisthamine now in clinical trials as an Alzheimer's drug) seems to increase levels of the protein beta-amyloid in the brain. Til now, researchers have been trying to figure out how to reduce levels of beta-amyloid, as these "tangles" in the brain have been thought to be part of the cause of Alzheimer's). So the news that increasing them may be a good thing is as startling at Tiger Woods not making the cut at the British Open.

  • Stress in all its forms seems damaging. A first-of-its kind study finds spousal caregivers, especially husbands, are at substantially higher risk of developing dementia themselves "“ not because it's contagious, but because of stress. And veterans carry twice the risk of developing dementia if they've had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On the bright side, of course, plenty is known about how to offset the physical and mental toll of stress, so being vulnerable doesn't mean you're destined for problems.

  • Diagnosing Alzheimer's may be getting easier, earlier: Faster than it seemed possible, advances in imaging are aiding the search for so-called bio-markers to help scientists find the disease at its earliest stages. An Irish study found that three memory tests plus MRI measurements of brain volume in the left hippocampus (the brain region best linked to memory) were the best predictors of which subjects with mild cognitive impairment would go on to develop Alzheimer's. Other studies are using PET scans to measure blood glucose to reap similar findings.

  • People who have the highest-risk gene associated with late-onset Alzheimer's may start to show symptoms in their 50s.

  • Knowing your genetic risk may help more than hurt. Some scientists worry that if people know they carry a [gene that raises the risk of Alzheimer's] ( it will cause them to freak out unnecessarily (since the disease has no cure and such info can't really tell you if you'll go on to develop it). Turns out there's no psychological damage to knowing, researchers say. Of course not: Knowledge is power.