Engaging The Brain May Help Delay Alzheimer’s Onset By As Much As Five Years

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 6.5 million people in the US age 65 and older are currently living with Alzheimer's disease.¹ It’s projected that this number will reach over 13 million by 2050.²

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the only disease in the US's top 10 causes of death that lacks effective prevention or cure. Unfortunately, 30% of seniors die from Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.¹

The need for research and new approaches to Alzheimer’s disease has reached a critical point. 

Ultimately, researchers are still working to understand the complex mechanisms and risk factors contributing to AD development. As a result, the cause is not yet fully understood.

Particularly noteworthy is the accumulating evidence of a relationship between keeping the brain engaged in stimulating activities and the ability to delay the onset of AD — by as long as half a decade, perhaps more. 

Some studies indicate that challenging your brain may also offer protective benefits against developing AD, making it a subject of tremendous research interest. 

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive brain disease and disorder that causes brain cells to degenerate and weaken over time. Essentially, the aging process affects the entire body, and the brain is no exception. 

As a quick analogy, if you’ve ever worn a cast while waiting for a broken bone to heal, you may unknowingly have some insight into how AD affects the brain. The muscles atrophy (shrink) when they are unused. 

Changes in cognition, or thinking ability, are somewhat similar because brain function can also decline due to inactivity. However, coping and treatment in those affected by AD are significantly more complex than exercising a muscle group to regain its function. 

Recent research indicates that brain changes linked to developing Alzheimer’s could be due to long-term inflammation. There is evidence that specific proteins, tau, and beta-amyloid, play a crucial role.

In those with AD, specific regions of the brain associated with memory show an abnormal accumulation of tau molecules. Also, beta-amyloid proteins clump together (forming plaques) and block nerve cell communication.

Signs and symptoms

Confusion and memory loss can indicate brain cell degeneration. Changes to the brain from AD usually begin in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that handles learning.

Typically, an individual with AD will experience a gradual loss of 

  • Learning ability

  • Decision making ability

  • Language skills

  • Emotional regulation 

  • Memory recall (retrieval of information)

AD can cause confusion about places, events, and time. It can also cause changes in personality and behavior. Those who experience memory issues or other potential signs of AD may not be aware of the changes, and family and friends may be more likely to notice the changes in their loved one’s behavior. 

If you think that you, or someone you care about, are experiencing AD symptoms, it is vital to seek assessment and support from a healthcare professional. A primary care doctor is usually the best starting place. A subsequent referral might be made to a specialist, such as a geriatrician (a doctor who delivers care for seniors).

What is the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?

Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia. Though you might notice those terms being used interchangeably, they are two distinct things. Dementia is not a disease. It is a collection of symptoms that involve memory loss, and a reduced ability to reason or make decisions. Dementia symptoms often show up as changes in speech, behavior, and personality. Health issues including (but not limited to) Parkinson’s Disease, Lewy Body Dementia, or a traumatic brain injury can cause symptoms of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease, which is characterized by symptoms of dementia.

Who is at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease typically affects people 60 years of age and older and advancing age is considered the main risk factor.

While there are some people with early-onset (younger-onset) AD, it is very rare, and often associated with other neurological conditions or strong family history. A family history, such as a sibling or parent having AD increases the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease oneself.

AD affects women disproportionately. A 2015 study found that female participants had a one in five chance of developing AD, compared with a one in 10 likelihood for the males.³

Researchers are still working to identify why AD is more common in women. Still, it’s generally agreed that it’s not just their longer average lifespan that’s responsible — though living longer does increase the lifetime risk of eventually developing AD. Interestingly, the prevalence of non-Alzheimer’s-related forms of dementia is similar among men and women.⁴ Some experts theorize that women may have more beta-amyloid plaques than men. There is also evidence of racial and ethnic disparity in the risks for AD. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “[O]lder Latinos are about 1.5 times as likely as older whites to have Alzheimer’s and other dementias, while older African-Americans are about twice as likely to have the disease as older whites.”⁴ The reasons for these differences are not well-understood, and more research is needed to distinguish between biological factors, cultural factors, and peoples’ perceptions of what constitutes “normal” aging. Several genes are associated with elevating the risk of Alzheimer's disease. APOE-e4 is the gene associated with higher risk. An estimated 40–65% of patients with an Alzheimer's diagnosis have this gene.⁵

Life expectancy with Alzheimer’s disease

The course of AD differs from person to person. On average, someone with Alzheimer's disease lives four to eight years after a formal diagnosis. While brain function is readily associated with memory and learning, the brain is also the control center for much more than thinking. AD is a progressive terminal illness that eventually affects circulation, swallowing, digestion, and breathing.

The course of the disease is different from person to person. Some individuals with AD may live as long as 20 years, depending on various factors, primarily the severity of the disease and the person’s baseline health.

Treatment

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are therapies associated with slowing down its progression. One research review notes that physical activity, proper diet, cognitive stimulation, and management of other conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity are all crucial.⁶ In June 2021, the drug aducanumab (brand name Aduhelm) was given expedited approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in Alzheimer’s patients. It’s the first therapy of its kind to remove beta-amyloid, a type of protein and a precursor for AD.

Additionally, there is growing evidence from clinical trials that suggests quality of life can be enhanced through non-pharmacological treatment. For example, interventions designed to decrease depressive symptoms, reduce stressors, and provide opportunities to engage in meaningful activities help to protect the quality of life in those with AD.⁷

A potential cure on the horizon: gene therapy

Researchers are hopeful about using gene therapy to treat AD. A Phase I clinical trial by Case Western Reserve University, and Ohio State University are conducting the first human clinical trial to test putting a protein in the brain to slow or prevent cell loss in the brains of those affected by Alzheimer's disease. The study is estimated to complete in 2025.⁸

Provided that the therapy proves effective and safe, it would offer the significant advantage of being given just once. Afterwhich, the brain cells will produce the protein on their own. Hypothetically, this may mean a possible AD cure.

Research from Chicago’s Rush University

Chicago's Rush University Medical Center has made excellent strides with Alzheimer’s disease research by studying the connection between the age of AD onset and the level of engaging brain activity. 

Results of the 2021 study with nearly 2,000 participants suggest that our brains are more resilient when involved in regular cognitive activities. Brain stimuli may delay AD onset by as long as five years. 

For example, activities that help stimulate the mind include writing, reading, board games, Sudoku, and other puzzles, engaging in conversation, playing musical instruments, learning a new language, taking a course, or going to a museum. The association between higher-level cognitive activity and a reduced risk of Alzheimer's has come to light in other research. However, before this study, the strength of the correlation and the underlying mechanism was unclear. The researchers demonstrate that although cognitive activity does not alter the degree of severity or the presence of brain transformation due to Alzheimer's, the brain manages to cope with the disease better than those who do not take part in such cognitive activity.

The lowdown

The crucial research conducted by the Medical Center at Rush University demonstrates that cognitive activity, such as playing games, or reading and writing, is highly beneficial for brain health as we age. By remaining mentally active, AD can be delayed and possibly prevented. As a public health issue, this approach is part of a move away from a ‘treatment only’ stance to more of a preventative brain health position. Gene therapy, also known as genetic medicine, may also play a crucial role in advancing Alzheimer’s treatment but still requires extensive study to determine its safety and efficacy in humans. Such therapy may enable human brain cells to generate the necessary drug on their own, within the brain itself. Additional activities which are part of a mentally active lifestyle and associated with reducing dementia risk include:

  • Listening to the radio

  • Learning a new language

  • Playing musical instruments

  • Artistic hobbies

  • Sports

  • Dancing

  • Gardening

  • Cultural activities

  • Conversation

If you believe that you or someone you know are experiencing AD symptoms, seek an assessment from a healthcare professional. While there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, evaluation and diagnosis enable accessing evidence-based treatments to enhance one's quality of life.

The information provided is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and their existing health care professional(s).

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Sources:
  1. Alzheimer's disease facts and figures | Alzheimer's Association

  2. Alzheimer disease in the United States (2010-2050) estimated using the 2010 census (2013)

  3. Gender and incidence of dementia in the Framingham heart study from mid-adult life (2015)

  4. Causes and risk factors for Alzheimer's disease | Alzheimer's Association

  5. Is Alzheimer's genetic? | Alzheimer's Association

  6. Slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease; what works? (2015)

  7. Evidence-based interventions to improve quality of life for individuals with dementia (2008)

  8. A clinical trial of AAV2-BDNF gene therapy in early Alzheimer's disease and mild cognitive impairment (2021)

  9. Cognitive activity and onset age of incident Alzheimer disease dementia (2021)

General Sources:

The author, Shirley Amy BSc., is a well-known English Holistic Health Guru. The author of 5 best-selling books, she has an avid interest in Optimum Health and Positive Lifestyle Change. She is always abreast of the latest cutting-edge research and focuses on the groundbreaking development of precise, customized medical treatments that are now becoming a reality thanks to genetic trials and revolutionary solutions. Shirley holds various University and College qualifications in Health Science, Nutritional Medicine, Diabetes, Mental Health, Addiction, Holistic Therapy, and Fitness.

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