New Alzheimer's Research Aims to Clarify Risk Factors

Megan Ray  |  June 16, 2014

June hosts a number of exciting celebrations - everything from Go Fishing Day to Accordion Awareness Month - but it also recognizes more serious observances. This June will mark the first Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month.

Hard truths
According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 5 million people in the U.S. are living with the disease. By 2050, the organization estimates that number will grow dramatically to 16 million. Even at its current rate, Alzheimer's is the sixth leading killer of Americans.

While great strides have been made in preventing death from other major diseases, such as HIV and heart disease, the toll of Alzheimer's continues to increase. The disease is a factor in around 500,000 deaths annually, and one-third of seniors die with it or another form of dementia. These statistics are sobering, but perhaps even more disturbing is how little we know about the disease and how little we can do to stop it. Currently, no cure exists, and the onset of Alzheimer's can neither be effectively prevented nor slowed. The illness can put a great strain on both people with the disease and those around them, whether they get help from professionals or rely on family caregiving.

Amyloid-beta research
Some progress is being made at least in understanding the condition, if not treating it. Most new developments center around amyloid-beta, a compound closely associated with Alzheimer's. Though no one can say for sure that the chemical causes the disease, people with high levels of amyloid-beta are at much higher risk.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked sleeplessness to higher levels of the protein. Men who went without sleep for a full night were found to have higher levels of amyloid-beta than those who slept soundly. Researchers said that the results do not exactly replicate realistic conditions, since most people rarely experience completely sleepless nights. However, one entire wakeful night may indicate the same stress that a whole week of reduced sleep causes. So little is known about Alzheimer's that this study cannot prove whether the amount of rest a person gets will actually affect their susceptibility. However, it does reveal sleeping patterns as a possible risk factor worthy of more research.

Detection methods to find the damage that amyloid-beta causes are also improving. The compound is thought to become harmful when it forms plaques on the brain that affect the organ's functioning. Until recently, these plaques were undetectable except by autopsy, making them useful only for determining the disease after a patient's death. Doctors in Louisville, Kentucky, recently developed a method to view the plaques using PET scans, according to the Courier-Journal. The new technique could aid Alzheimer's diagnoses while the patient is still able to receive care. Though the presence of these abnormalities alone does not definitively identify the disease, the two are closely associated.

Researchers hope to study healthy adults who have the plaques as part of a drug trial. The new medication may slow dementia symptoms in people who have amyloid-beta buildup, but only a multiple-year trial will be able to say for sure.

Other positive signs
Areas of research other than amyloid-beta have been fruitful, as well. HealthDay News reported that a new blood test can predict the onset of the disease. The screening measures levels of 10 different fats in the body, low levels of which may indicate Alzheimer's risk. Researchers do not yet know how these compounds are associated with the disease, but the test has proven accurate in 90 percent of cases.

These studies may provide insight about how to treat or reduce the risk of developing the disease. Progress will be slow, but every step brings scientists a little closer to the cure.

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