Of all of the fates that aging can bring, Alzheimer’s disease — which afflicts 34 million people worldwide — is understandably one of the most feared. It’s characterized by a mental deterioration that leaves the inflicted unrecognizable to family and friends, which is eventually accompanied by a swift physical decline. But are there steps we can take to avoid contracting Alzheimer’s? Recent research, as reported by Pam Belluck in The New York Times (“Grasping for Any Way to Prevent Alzheimer’s“), seems to suggest so.
Last week, talk at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Paris revolved around prevention. A new study presented at the conference suggested that several lifestyle factors — physical inactivity, smoking, depression, low education, hypertension, obesity and diabetes — can increase the likelihood that an individual might contract the disease. If those at high risk addressed those factors through exercising, quitting smoking, increasing education and losing weight, the theory holds that they could diminish their risk for Alzheimer’s. The researchers acknowledge that, thus far, the data is not definitive and there is no concrete scientific evidence that the listed risk factors indeed cause Alzheimer’s.
Most studies related to Alzheimer’s have been observational, and very few clear conclusions have been drawn. Writes Belluck of a National Institutes for Health panel: “The panel found the strongest evidence for only one conclusion: that the herb gingko biloba does not prevent Alzheimer’s. There was moderate evidence that neither vitamin E nor drugs called cholinesterase inhibitors, used to treat dementia symptoms, decrease risk of Alzheimer’s. And there was moderate evidence that the gene ApoE4 significantly increases Alzheimer’s risk, as does menopause therapy with estrogens and progestins. Evidence for or against any other causal factor was poor, often because studies were small, used vague or changing definitions, or did not rigorously monitor what subjects were doing.”
Further trials are required to establish causal relationships, and I can’t help but notice that the risk factors for Alzheimer’s are remarkably similar to the risk factors for a number of life-shortening ailments, including cancer, heart disease and stroke. In other words, the medical community has identified a broad set of recommendations for how to live healthier, longer but specific, conclusive evidence remains scarce. So for now, the best preventative measures involve using common sense to live relatively healthy with limited physical or mental stressors — and hoping that you’re holding the right genetic cards.