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Dr. Serge Gauthier (Photo courtesy of Douglas Mental Health Institute)

ABCs of Science: Alzheimer’s

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Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias affect an estimated 500,000 Canadians. A study by the Alzheimer Society of Canada (ASC) found the disease to be the second most feared by Canadians as they age, and with good reason—the disease leads to cognitive function resulting in impaired short-term memory, the inability to perform routine tasks, and as the disease progresses, the loss of long-term memories.

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the formation of plaques and tangles in the brain caused by the very proteins that work to maintain normal brain function. When these proteins—Tau and beta-amyloid—fold into the wrong shape, they become toxic to neurons, eventually causing the death of brain cells.

Researchers are currently exploring a wide range of treatments to deal with different aspects of the disease. Some studies have looked into altering the biochemical pathways that are suspected to cause the proteins to misfold. So far, attempts to control the disease by treating amyloid-beta proteins have not produced any effective treatment options.

Dr. Serge Gauthier, from the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging, offered an explanation.

“The short story is that if you try [to treat] amyloid when the dementia is already obvious, it’s probably too late,” he said.

Potential treatment of the other type of protein, Tau, is still being investigated.

Current treatment options address the physiological and psychological effects of Alzheimer’s. Some psychiatric drugs may be used to treat neuropsychiatric symptoms such as aggression, agitation, and depression.

A class of drugs called cholinesterase inhibitors, which increase the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, have been found to reduce cognitive decline. Another drug called memantine, developed in part by McGill researchers, helps to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s by blocking chemical receptors in the brain.

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s. Current drugs can reduce and slow down symptoms, but so far, no one has been able to reverse the progression of the disease. Once diagnosed, patients face an inevitable decline.

With such a grim prognosis, prevention and early detection of Alzheimer’s is a top priority. Luckily, there are several ways for people to reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Living a healthy lifestyle is the single biggest way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s later in life, according to the ASC. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and being socially engaged are all simple ways of improving overall health while helping to prevent a range of aging-related diseases, not just Alzheimer’s.

In particular, exercise has been shown to have a protective effect. It increases the levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which causes the growth of the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory.

Having an intellectually stimulating job, playing sudoku, and even gardening have also been shown to be beneficiary. For men, marital status also plays a role. According to a study done at Harvard University, married men have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s than bachelors.

There are a number of groups working to educate the public not only about prevention but also about living with the disease. The Alzheimer Society of Montreal, for example, runs both fundraising and awareness programs to help make people more comfortable talking about Alzheimer’s.

Society today has a complicated relationship with Alzheimer’s, in part because many people are unfamiliar with the disease.

“There is definitely a stigma,” said Jessica Seidman, a counselor from the Alzheimer Society of Montreal. “Friends and family members [of patients] pull away because they don’t necessarily understand what to do, or they might not be comfortable in helping [the patient] through [the disease] because they’re very concerned about what the disease means and don’t know how to act.” 

While the average university student may run a low risk of developing Alzheimer’s any time soon, chances are that most students will eventually know someone who does. A 2005 study published in Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders projected the worldwide prevalence of dementia to nearly triple between 2000 and 2040.

“Just because someone has that diagnosis [of Alzheimer’s] doesn’t mean that they can’t live a fulfilling life and participate in the community,” Seidman said.

This rise in Alzheimer’s patients makes it even more important for society to increase its familiarity with the disease. Events like Alzheimer Awareness Month in January, as well as many others, help to break down stereotypes of dementia.

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