Good Life

OLLI column | Dementia research expanding

I want to start 2014 off on a positive note concerning dementia. We are all familiar with the devastation and chaos a dementia such as Alzheimer’s causes to elders and their families.

If you are dealing with dementia in a loved one, you are likely searching for ways to treat it as well as ways to avoid getting it.

When giving talks to the public, I’m inevitably asked about inheriting Alzheimer’s. The good news is that the inherited form of Alzheimer’s is relatively rare (less than 5 percent), and when it strikes, it’s often an early-age onset.

I caution people who are “terrified” of inheriting Alzheimer’s that they may need to be more concerned about the health of their circulatory system and avoid getting a vascular dementia from strokes.

The good news about vascular dementia is that it can be avoided. When you avoid high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic high levels of stress, obesity and diabetes, your chances of getting any type of dementia are decreased.

Every single thing that decreases blood flow and oxygen to your brain will increase your chances for dementia. One of the most important and effective ways to avoid dementia is to make sure blood and oxygen are getting circulated up to the brain daily through some form of exercise. This needn’t be aerobic exercises or jogging; it could simply mean walking around the block or the mall, or climbing the stairs a few times every day. If you’re up and moving, then your brain is benefiting from it.

When I read the research and studies being conducted on all types of dementia, it makes me feel optimistic that in my lifetime we will see new treatments, vaccines or ways to prevent dementias. German researchers are looking at how the immune system contributes to development of Alzheimer’s. University of British Columbia researchers are looking at drugs targeting brain blood vessels that seem to double in the presence of Alzheimer’s. Deep brain stimulation already is being used for some types of Parkinson’s and obessive compulsive disorder, and is now being tested on subjects with Alzheimer’s.

Building on that information, surgeons at Johns Hopkins are implanting brain “pacemakers” into subjects with Alzheimer’s to see if it will halt or reverse the damage.

One of the biggest hurdles for any dementia medication is getting it across the blood-brain barrier to work directly in the brain.

To address that problem, researchers at UCLA have developed a “molecular tweezer” that has proven to be protective to the neuron synapses. This may lead to a prophylactic treatment of Alzheimer’s long before the onset of symptoms. Focused computer brain exercises called the NeuroAD system (Harvard Medical School) have seen successful interim results in Alzheimer’s patients.

This is a miniscule sampling of the research being conducted here and worldwide. Scientists are attacking the questions from every angle, and this is why I am optimistic for a future without dementia.