Slow­ing Alzheimer’s

> Based on re­cent data, ex­perts are hope­ful that im­proved qual­ity of life may pro­tect against this de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease that strikes the el­derly

The Sun (Malaysia) - - LIFESTYLE -

SOAR­ING rates of pop­u­la­tion growth and age­ing have long been seen as por­tend­ing a global ex­plo­sion of Alzheimer’s, the de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease that robs older peo­ple of their me­mory and in­de­pen­dence.

But an un­ex­pected, and hope­ful, trend may be emerg­ing.

In rich coun­tries at least, re­cent data sug­gests the rate of new cases has slowed or even re­versed – a tan­ta­lis­ing hint that qual­ity-of-life im­prove­ments may pro­tect against de­men­tia.

“These find­ings are promis­ing, and sug­gest that iden­ti­fy­ing and re­duc­ing risk fac­tors for Alzheimer’s and other de­men­tias may be ef­fec­tive,” Keith Fargo, sci­en­tific direc­tor at the Amer­i­can Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion, told AFP.

Over­all num­bers will keep grow­ing for now – al­beit at a slower rate – as more and more peo­ple live ever longer, he noted.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, de­men­tia af­fects some 47.5 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide – with 7.7 mil­lion new cases every year. Alzheimer’s is the most com­mon cause, re­spon­si­ble for 60-70% of de­men­tia cases.

The dis­ease typ­i­cally pro­gresses from for­get­ful­ness and ab­sent­mind­ed­ness to ma­jor me­mory loss and near to­tal de­pen­dence, as suf­fer­ers be­come un­aware of time and place. To­wards the end, those af­flicted can for­get how to eat.

Alzheimer’s was first iden­ti­fied more than 100 years ago, but there is still no ef­fec­tive treat­ment or cure, and sci­en­tists dis­agree on its causes.

A main cul­prit is thought to be the buildup of pro­tein plaques on the brain, though one can have Alzheimer’s with­out it.

Some re­cent stud­ies have linked the con­di­tion to air pol­lu­tion, fun­gus or even ac­ci­den­tal trans­mis­sion dur­ing a med­i­cal pro­ce­dure.

New stud­ies point­ing to an Alzheimer’s slow­down in rich coun­tries, es­pe­cially among men, im­ply that a healthy lifestyle – and plenty of brain ex­er­cise – may slow or stave off de­men­tia.

Such trends have been ob­served in coun­tries like the US, the Nether­lands, Swe­den, and Spain. Bri­tain had the big­gest re­ver­sal – Alzheimer’s in­ci­dences dropped 20% in as many years.

A study in the jour­nal Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions in April re­ported 209,000 new cases in Bri­tain in 2015 – far fewer than the 251,000 fore­cast in 1991 based on pop­u­la­tion growth and age­ing trends.

This meant that the like­li­hood for Bri­tish over-65s of de­vel­op­ing de­men­tia was “lower than it was for the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion”, the au­thors con­cluded. The rea­sons are not clear. Some re­searchers point to im­proved car­dio­vas­cu­lar health stem­ming from a grow­ing aware­ness of the dan­gers of smok­ing, obe­sity and a lack of ex­er­cise. Bet­ter high blood pres­sure and choles­terol drugs may also play a role.

Sev­eral stud­ies have linked brain stim­u­la­tion to lower de­men­tia risk – whether in the form of high-level school­ing, a cere­brally-chal­leng­ing job, or sim­ply filling out a cross­word or Su­doku.

“It’s the old adage of use it or lose it,” Reynolds said.

Fur­ther re­search is needed to prove that these fac­tors act as de­men­tia shields.

Pub­lic health pol­icy should en­cour­age “bet­ter en­vi­ron­ments and health­ier so­ci­eties”, said Carol Brayne of the Cam­bridge In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Health.

This is no time for com­pla­cency, she and other ex­perts said ahead of World Alzheimer’s Day.

In de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, in­ci­dence rates may be un­der­es­ti­mated and are likely to rise as med­i­cal care im­proves and more peo­ple make it into their 80s.

“There are other things that have changed that may push it (the trend) in the wrong di­rec­tion,” said David Reynolds of Alzheimer’s Re­search UK.

“Di­a­betes and obe­sity have been ris­ing rapidly over the last 20 years. So it is pos­si­ble that while we are in many ways health­ier, for other rea­sons, we have made our­selves less healthy ... and that may then ei­ther re­duce the de­cline or even push up the rates of de­men­tia.” – AFP

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