As Krystal Allan witnessed Alzheimer’s disease spread through her family, her own perspective shifted drastically.
“Several relatives on my dad’s side, including my grandmother, suffered from Alzheimer’s,” Allan, an award-winning anchor with News 3 Las Vegas said. “I saw firsthand what it meant both for patients and caregivers alike.
Her family history created an air of certainty about her own future.
“Caregiver anxiety increases exponentially when loved ones begin deteriorating and family members must step in as caregivers,” Allan noted.
Watching someone you care for suffer from Alzheimer’s is heartbreaking, so Allan began preventive treatments at Cleveland Clinic’s Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement (WAM) Prevention Center to try to stave off further decline. At first, her focus was mainly educational – however what she discovered changed everything for her. Allan was stunned to learn that 40% of Alzheimer’s cases could be delayed or avoided altogether by making healthier lifestyle changes early. “I was also inspired to realize my family history doesn’t necessarily determine my trajectory of brain health,” Allan said. “It has been such an eye opener realizing this fact and seeing it first hand.”
Fighting Alzheimer’s Disease At WAM, its mission is to empower women to take steps against Alzheimer’s, which currently ranks seventh on the US death toll list, by teaching them that prevention can reduce risk. Family history plays an essential role in understanding risk and encouraging women to seek preventive care, according to Jessica Caldwell, Ph.D., director of WAM Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic. Our work involves expanding knowledge about women most vulnerable, those seeking preventive care as well as factors putting them at risk; all data that will allow us to develop more effective treatments or protocols.”
No moment too soon: 2016 can’t come fast enough.
In the United States, approximately one out of 10 individuals over the age of 65 living with Alzheimer’s is female; two thirds of these individuals are women. Although we still do not fully understand all of the factors that increase women’s risk for Alzheimer’s, studies indicate that menopause and its associated decline in estrogen production lead to decreased brain activity and energy. Sex-specific differences among genes or networks within regions of the brain could also play a part in increasing risks among female patients.
Everyone knows the feeling of suddenly going blank on key information – like where you left your keys or why you just entered a room. Unfortunately, forgetfulness can become part of daily life as we age; these instances of forgetfulness often become more prevalent with age.
Dementia differs significantly from ordinary moments of forgetfulness.
“Lost your keys? Forgetting what keys they were is normal – but forgetting where you put them can be frightening,” according to Heather Snyder, Ph.D., Vice President of Medical and Scientific Relations of Alzheimer’s Association. Dementia refers to changes in memory, thinking and reasoning which impede everyday functions such as working independently and maintaining independence.
Stopping Alzheimer’s before it begins
While some risk factors of Alzheimer’s, such as age, genetics and family history are beyond our control, other aspects that individuals can exert control over have become the mainstays of prevention strategies against this condition.
WAM uses evidence-based preventive care and collects clinical data to understand how prevention strategies can be improved. “We work with women to help improve risk factors they can influence, such as diabetes. Additionally, lifestyle factors like smoking, drinking, nutrition, stress levels and sleep can have major influences.” Caldwell noted.
Preventive research and clinical trials play an essential part in helping us better understand how controlling certain risk factors may help protect against Alzheimer’s.
“Trials play an integral part in moving forward,” Snyder stated. “There are drug trials as well as biomarker trials, looking at new measures of biology, dealing with care interventions, risk reduction strategies and behavioral interventions.”
One major trial spearheaded by the Alzheimer’s Association is known as U.S. POINTER: an intervention trial utilizing lifestyle interventions such as diet, exercise and cognitive training to preserve cognitive functions. This global network expands on Finland Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER), which demonstrated lifestyle interventions such as diet, exercise and cognitive training can help preserve cognitive functions. U.S. POINTER was pioneering this form of trial within America and still accepts participants.
The Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP), conducted by the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the longest-running and largest studies on Alzheimer’s worldwide. Utilizing volunteer data collection methods, WRAP has amassed an extensive set of information pertaining to lifestyle choices, fitness regimens, biomarkers and genetic factors which affect Alzheimer’s risk – such as lifestyle fitness levels or genetic makeup. So far (still open for participation), they’ve discovered certain biomarkers are linked with cognitive decline while healthier lifestyle choices may improve both cognitive performance as well as overall brain structure.
At present, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) is funding more than 400 active trials on Alzheimer’s and dementia research. While some are drug trials, the vast majority aren’t; of these studies there are 139 trials focused on intervention modalities like exercise, cognitive training, sleep study and diet that the NIA supports.
Finding Hope Beyond Limitated Therapies
Research that shows promise involves early diagnosis and preventive measures designed to slow, or stop altogether, Alzheimer’s disease from progressing further before plaque buildup appears. Women, in particular, need to identify any possible contributing factors as soon as possible so as to obtain long-term prevention and treatment opportunities as soon as possible, according to Snyder. “Giving them a longer period of prevention or treatment would be immensely helpful.”
One brain imaging research study at Weill Cornell Women’s Brain Initiative (WBI) is exploring the connection between decreased estrogen and an increased Alzheimer’s risk in women. Other ongoing research pinpointing specific approaches to prevention that can then be translated into clinical trials; such approaches could include taking multivitamin daily, lowering blood pressure, seeking timely depression treatment as soon as it’s needed, staying physically fit and improving sleep habits – just some examples that might play a part. If that sounds daunting to you, one recent diet modification study concluded that both red wine and cheese help protect cognitive functions – don’t feel intimidated – studies indicate both helps protect cognitive functions in ways.
Prevention and early diagnosis are vital because there is no single cause of Alzheimer’s, most likely involving complex interactions among them. Without an identifiable root cause, treatment options for its 6 million sufferers remain limited: “Medications that treat symptoms but don’t prevent progress of disease may eventually no longer help,” Caldwell stated, while any drugs which address root causes are either very new and not easily accessible or may help in reducing plaque buildup but only offer limited relief from it altogether.
Engaging for a healthier future Its More clinical trials with diverse participants is better. When more women get involved, we have hope of providing effective preventive care services to all who require it.
Start now by finding an Alzheimer’s clinical trial that’s local and checking its qualifications. TrialMatch from Alzheimer’s Association makes this easy; also, National Institute on Aging (NIA) and Mayo Clinic both provide tools for finding clinical trials; major research centers, universities and hospitals involved in Alzheimer’s research typically publish lists of open studies as well.
“Taking an active interest is the first step toward changing anything,” Allan noted. “Just as when flying on an airplane they tell you to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others.” He believes if he takes care of himself first then other will too – this issue touches us all equally.