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Advancing the Science: The Latest Discoveries in Alzheimer’s and Dementia Research

Dr. Maria Carrillo, Chief Science Officer at the Alzheimer’s Association.

...by Keri Pollock

Over 120,000 people age 65+ in Washington State, and more than 5.8 million nationally, are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Without effective treatment or cure, the impact of Alzheimer’s will continue to rise. This drives the Alzheimer’s Association’s investments in research to understand the basic biology underlying Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Dr. Maria Carrillo, Chief Science Officer at the Association, recently gave a virtual presentation— “Advancing the Science: The Latest Discoveries in Alzheimer’s and Dementia Research”— through Town Hall Seattle.

“This is such a hopeful time. Research is getting us the answers we are looking for, though we are confronting a very complex set of diseases under the umbrella of dementia,” said Carrillo, providing an overview of the latest research advances in prevention, detection, diagnostics and therapeutic interventions. Carrillo’s presentation came on the heels of the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2020 (AAIC®), the largest and most influential international meeting dedicated to advancing dementia science.

Here are some highlights:

Early Detection, Diagnosis and Finding a Cure

Biological markers, or biomarkers, help researchers measure change in the body and are accelerating the speed of research. Two biomarker hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease are amyloid plaques and tau tangles. A promising blood test in development detects p-Tau217, the tau specific to Alzheimer’s, at a low cost and possibly up to 20 years before symptoms occur.

Biomarkers can assist with early detection and diagnosis. This in turn can help individuals prioritize their health, possibly delay or slow disease progression, plan ahead, and become eligible for a wider variety of clinical trials to help advance research.

Bill Gates has joined fellow philanthropist Mikey Hoag to help fund the Alzheimer’s Association “Part the Cloud” global research program. This partnership is funding sixteen neuroinflammation research studies. You can learn more at alz.org/speed

Risk and Lifestyle

While age, family history and heredity are risk factors we can’t change, research reveals clues to other risk factors we may be able to modify: lifestyle, cardiovascular health, physical activity, diet, sleep, social/ cognitive engagement, education and traumatic brain injury.

A two-year clinical trial, the U.S. POINTER study, is currently underway. This study evaluates whether lifestyle interventions—specifically physical activity, cognitive and social stimulation, healthy diet and health coaching, that simultaneously target many risk factors—protect cognitive function in older adults who are at increased risk for cognitive decline.

Drug Trials and Approvals

In 2020, the largest number of drugs in the Alzheimer’s clinical trials pipeline are treatments that prevent or slow down the loss of function. The developer of an anti-amyloid therapy to treat mild cognitive impairment (MCI) due to Alzheimer’s and mild Alzheimer’s is seeking FDA approval. Researchers reported a reduction in clinical decline, benefits on cognition and function, and a reduction of amyloid/tau biomarkers. FDA approval is anticipated March 2021.

Flu and Pneumonia Vaccination

New research presented at AAIC 2020 suggests flu and pneumonia vaccines may be associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. One study found a single flu shot was associated with a 17% lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s, while another study reported that for people between 65 and 75, a pneumonia vaccine reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s by 40%. More frequent flu and pneumonia vaccinations were associated with an even greater risk reduction.

“These new findings make an even stronger case for the potential of behavioral interventions throughout life to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” said Carrillo.

The Alzheimer’s Association is a worldwide voluntary health organization dedicated to Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Their mission is to lead the way to end Alzheimer’s and all other dementia by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality of care and support. Learn more about local programs and services by visiting alzwa.org or calling 1-800-272-3900.

Keri Pollock is director of marketing & communications for Aging Wisdom, a care management practice based in Seattle. She serves on the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter Conference Advisory Council, keri@ agingwisdom.com