Alzheimer’s disease. Two words that can strike fear in anyone’s heart. There’s no cure at this time for this progressive form of dementia that slowly but steadily destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest of tasks. First, the bad news: People who have Type 2 diabetes appear to be at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD) than people without diabetes. Now the good news: There are some signs of progress in fighting this disease.
The lowdown on Alzheimer’s disease
Chances are you know someone who has Alzheimer’s disease — a parent, an aunt or uncle, or a neighbor, perhaps. Affecting more than 5 million Americans, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s disease every 66 seconds.
This condition can set in years before symptoms appear. Abnormal deposits of protein form “amyloid plaques” and “tau tangles” in the brain, affecting neurons (nerve cells). The damage occurs primarily in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. As more neurons die, more parts of the brain are affected. In early stages, memory loss is mild, but as it progresses, a person loses the ability to have a conversation and respond to his or her environment.
The link between Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes
While the cause of Alzheimer’s disease isn’t known, scientists do know that high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels in the brain may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. High blood sugar levels may also lead to inflammation, which damages brain cells. And high levels of insulin, which can occur in Type 2 diabetes, may trigger the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s important to know your risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. As with diabetes, some of these risk factors can’t be changed, but others can.
• Age: Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Most people with the condition are 65 and older.
• Family history: Risk increases if you have a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s disease.
• Genes: Having certain genes for Alzheimer’s disease increases the risk, although having these “risk” genes doesn’t mean that you will develop the condition. (“Deterministic genes” directly cause Alzheimer’s disease, which will develop in anyone who has them.)
• Head injury: Head trauma or loss of consciousness as a result of head injury raises the risk. Always wear your seatbelt and wear a protective helmet when playing sports. If you are older, make your home fall-proof.
• Poor heart health: High blood pressure, heart and vascular disease, and stroke can raise your risk. Focus on getting your heart health numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides) into a healthy range.
• Uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes: Diabetes control and heart health go hand in hand. It’s not always easy, but getting and keeping your blood sugars and A1C levels within your target range can lower your risk for getting Alzheimer’s disease.
• Lifestyle: An unhealthy diet, being overweight, not getting regular physical activity, and smoking can worsen heart health and diabetes, thereby increasing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
New (possible) treatments for Alzheimer’s disease
Researchers are racing against the clock to find ways to either prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease. So far, there’s no cure. Medications are available, but they work to help slow memory loss, not to prevent or cure the condition. However, some newer approaches are promising.
Anti-amyloid treatment: Research is currently underway to test a therapy called an anti-amyloid antibody drug. The goal is to see if administering a monthly infusion of this drug can decrease amyloid buildup in the brain, helping to slow memory loss. The study investigating this treatment is called the A4 Study and it is target toward adults ages 65–85 who have normal thinking and memory function but who may be at risk for memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease. (This study is not for people who have already have the disease.) If you’re interested in this study, which is being conducted at sites nationwide (as well as in Canada and Australia), visit the website a4study.org to find out if you’re eligible and locations near you.
Antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs): These DNA-like molecules may prevent the formation of tau and reduce existing levels, as well. ASO treatment in mice and monkeys has been effective; however, more studies are needed to see if this approach is both safe and effective in humans.
Diabetes medicines: Metformin, one of the most commonly used drugs to help manage diabetes, may be a promising way to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Newer studies have shown that the longer metformin is taken, the lower the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. And people with early Alzheimer’s disease who were given metformin for eight weeks had significant improvements in memory and cognitive function. Another diabetes medicine, liraglutide (brand name Victoza) has reduced amyloid plaque in the brain and improved Alzheimer’s symptoms. More studies are needed, however.
Olive oil: Extra-virgin olive oil, or EVOO, seems to protect memory and learning ability and to reduce the formation of amyloid plaques in mice fed an EVOO-enriched diet, according to researchers at Temple University. More studies to come!
Mediterranean diet: A review of studies that looked at the effect of the Mediterranean diet on long-term cognitive function established that people who adhered to this way of eating had less cognitive decline, had improvements in cognitive function, or were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared to people who did not stick to this diet. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, and olive oil, with lesser amounts of poultry and cheese and limited amounts of red meat and sweets.
For more information, contact the Alzheimer’s Disease and Education Referral (ADEAR) Center at (800) 438-4380 or the Alzheimer’s Association at (800) 272-3900.