New research brings hope for detecting and preventing Alzheimer’s disease

Key takeaways:

  • More than six million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Research has shown that as many as 40% of Alzheimer’s and dementia cases can be prevented with lifestyle changes.

  • A low-cost, accurate blood test for Alzheimer’s disease may be available in a few years.

[4 MIN READ]

During a Swedish Alzheimer’s disease research webinar late last year, the very first question during the Q&A was one that millions of families ask every day:

“When will we have a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?”

Nancy Isenberg, M.D., MPH, the webinar’s featured speaker, responded with optimism.

“While we don’t yet have a cure, we have a better understanding of the relationship between certain risk factors and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Isenberg, a neurology expert and the director of the Swedish Center for Healthy Aging. “By implementing certain lifestyle changes, we can reduce the possibility of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.”

As we recognize Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month this June, we’re highlighting some of the recent research around Alzheimer’s disease and the important changes you can make to keep your brain healthy.

A possible Alzheimer’s blood test

Although there isn’t yet a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, recent studies have focused on a blood test that could accurately detect the condition. A study in Sweden found that the blood test was 96% accurate in identifying Alzheimer’s disease in people with dementia. For people who have a genetic mutation that causes Alzheimer’s, researchers say the test could detect the disease 20 years before memory and thinking problems start.

The standard testing process usually includes a positron emission tomography, or PET, scan and a spinal tap, which are invasive and expensive. These testing procedures also can’t definitively tell if a patient will develop Alzheimer’s disease. And because PET scans and spinal taps are hard for many patients to access, most diagnoses are made through clinical observations from a doctor after symptoms are already present.

If proven effective, a new blood test would offer a far less invasive — and more accurate — option for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.

The new test looks for a specific protein in the blood called p-tau217, which has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. If proven effective, the blood test would offer a far less invasive — and more accurate — option for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.

Having a blood test that can accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s disease would allow doctors to confirm whether patients have the disease or another form of dementia. This confirmation can ultimately affect treatment decisions.

“Although it’s still a few years away, it’s very exciting to think that there may be a blood test available that’s affordable and less invasive,” Dr. Isenberg says.

Recent research reveals new risk factors

While research is ongoing to develop better testing, other studies are looking at modifiable risk factors or lifestyle changes.

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia kill more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. It’s important that we not only improve early detection, but we also educate patients about what they can do.

“Alzheimer’s disease and dementia kill more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined,” Dr. Isenberg notes. “It’s important that we not only improve early detection of the disease, but we also educate patients about what they can do.”

The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care published a list of twelve risk factors at various stages of life that can increase the possibility of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Source: The Lancet, Risk Factors for Dementia 

“By targeting these 12 modifiable risk factors, as much as 40% of dementia cases are preventable over someone’s life,” says Dr. Isenberg. “I think that’s very encouraging.”

The seven habits of healthy aging

With these factors in mind, Dr. Isenberg has seven habits of healthy aging that she encourages all adults to adopt. These steps, combined with regular care from your doctor, can help lower your chances of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia or reduce their effects.

We may not have a pill or a procedure that can treat Alzheimer’s and dementia. But we do have approaches that can change the brain and improve your overall functioning.

“We may not have a pill or a procedure that can treat Alzheimer’s and dementia. But we do have approaches that can change the brain and improve your overall functioning,” she says.

1. Heart-healthy diet

A diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes can improve blood flow to the brain. Try to avoid too much sugar, salt (sodium), red meat and full-fat dairy products.

2. Exercise

Like a heart-healthy diet, exercise can also help improve brain health by increasing blood flow. Dr. Isenberg recommends 30 minutes of exercise five days a week.

3. Sleep

Insomnia and sleep apnea may lead to dementia, which means it’s important to get at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.

4. Lifelong learning

Continuing to challenge your mind with new activities and hobbies can help keep your brain sharp. Getting involved in community events or volunteer opportunities can also help stimulate you mind and ward off dementia.

5. Positive outlook

Focusing on positive aspects of aging can help promote resilience. Lack of resilience may increase the possibility of substance abuse or mental health conditions, both of which contribute to the risk of dementia.

6. Social connections

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new attention to the dementia-related contributors of loneliness, making it even more important to maintain connections with family and friends. A quick phone call or afternoon video chat can go a long way to boost your mood and your brain health.

7. Collaborative care

It’s essential to have a team-centered approach to care as you age. This approach addresses all aspects of your health and wellbeing — physical, emotional and social — and it’s how we care for patients at the Center for Healthy Aging. By focusing on all aspects of your healthcare, rather than just one area or condition, we can address dementia risk factors from all angles so you can live a full and healthy life.

Support Alzheimer’s research and care at Swedish

If you’re interested in learning more about Alzheimer’s care and research, check out the three-part lunch-and-learn series with Dr. Isenberg.

You can also make a gift to support Dr. Isenberg’s innovative work at the Swedish Center for Healthy Aging to make groundbreaking neurologic care available to more patients.

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Find a doctor

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

Tips for healthy aging: A conversation about dementia with Dr. Nancy Isenberg

Four medications that can affect your memory

Is it a concussion? Know the signs

About the Author

Our philosophy for well being is looking at the holistic human experience. As such, the Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team is committed to shining a light on health-related topics that help you live your healthiest life. From nutrition to mindfulness to annual screenings, our team offers clinically-backed advice and tips to help you and your loved ones live life to the fullest.

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