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3 rays of hope from the Alzheimer’s Association conference

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Dementia today seems so unbeatable that organizers of this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference put only a few cure-related items in a special collection of documents.

At press time, the list of official conference news releases included two with headlines that referred to indicators that correlate with rapid cognitive decline, two with headlines that referred to the MetLife Foundation, and just one that referred to possible treatments for Alzheimer’s.

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The conference highlighted a press release about a Lewin Group analysis suggesting that 28 million of the 70 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer’s disease, and that, by 2040, those boomers with Alzheimer’s will account for $328 billion in Medicare spending, in 2014 dollars, or about 24 percent of all 2040 Medicare spending.

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On Sunday, a panel of researchers discussed whether the world should shift research dollars away from search for methods for detecting and curing Alzheimer’s, and toward controlling risk factors, such as poor nutrition, and improving support for people who already have dementia.

From the perspective of conference organizers, just coming up with basic research suggesting that doctors could, eventually, get better tools for determining who will develop severe dementia, looked like great news.

Of course, the insurance companies that protect consumers against health care and long-term care (LTC) care costs, their policyholders, and their agents and brokers want more than tools for assessing the prognosis of the case of dementia, or announcements that MetLife Foundation is generously supporting efforts to honor dementia researchers. Insurers, consumers and producers want the researchers to come up with products for preventing and treating Alzheimer’s.

Researchers solved the insurance community’s tuberculosis problem, and then the polio problem. Now, the target is dementia.

For a look at some hints researchers gave of possible ways to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s, read on.

Brain scan

1. Calcium

The body uses calcium to build bones and cells use calcium to send signals to one another.

Grace Stutzmann talked on Sunday about research showing that brain cells affected by Alzheimer’s disease have trouble handling calcium long before other symptoms of the condition appear.

Coming up with drugs that improve the way brain cells handle calcium might be a way to prevent Alzheimer’s symptoms from appearing, Stutzmann said.

In the past, Stutzmann has worked with other researchers to show that dantrolene, a muscle relaxant that inhibits the release of calcium, seems to improve the brain health of mice that are bred to show signs of senility early.

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Clogged blood vessel

2. Cholesterol metabolism problems

Sandro Alves, a French researcher, talked about research on mice that shows that a buildup of cholesterol in the brain may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, and that preventing a calcium buildup may be a way to slow or prevent the condition.

Researchers have suggested in the past that ordinary cholesterol-lowering drugs might hurt brain function.

Some say taking statins, drugs that lower blood cholesterol levels, could sharply reduce Alzheimer’s risk. 

See also: Study ties higher blood sugar to dementia risk


3. Belly bugs

Lap Ho, Jeremiah Faith and Giulio Pasinetti are presenting a poster showing how phenols, or chemicals produced by microbes in the intestines, may be able to keep strands of beta amyloid goo from forming in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

The researchers fed the phenols to rats and showed that the phenols crossed into the rats’ brains. They also have separate evidence that the phenols can break up beta amyloid goo.

The researchers’ next step is to try to organize more studies testing whether some of the microbes in people’s stomachs and intestines may produce substances that can help prevent, cure or ease symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Conference organizers have put that poster and many other posters and oral presentations in a category for “natural products and nutraceuticals.”

Some of the other possible nutraceutical Alzheimer’s treatments discussed by presenters include methionine, an amino acid found in eggs, meat and Brazil nuts; taurine, an amino acid found in fish and meat; resveratrol, a phenol best known for appearing in red wine; and pterocarpus marsupium, an Indian tree extract used in traditional Indian medicine to treat conditions such as diabetes.

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