Every 69 seconds, another American develops Alzheimer's Disease. According to the Alzheimer's Association, of the top 10 causes of death in America, Alzheimer's Disease is the only cause of death with no known treatment or cure.
The cause of Alzheimer's Disease is a mystery as well, but a leading suspect is the protein beta-amyloid that accumulates and appears to cause brain cell death. The combination of degenerating brain cells and the amyloid forms plaque.
A medicine to stop the amyloid buildup would be welcome, but today, U.C. Berkeley researchers say they have potentially identified a simpler approach.
Writing in the Archives of Neurology, researchers found a link between people who engage in lifelong "cognitively stimulating activities" and reduced formation of beta-amyloid.
"This is the first study that's linked a lifestyle factor, something that people practice over the course of their lifetime, to amyloid on the brain," said Susan Landau, Ph.D., of U.C. Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. "What that means is that people who said that they did activities like reading, writing, playing games, every day, almost every day or a few times a week and who reported that over the course of their lifetime, that they were more likely to have a lower level of this pathological, amyloid protein in their brains which is associated with Alzheimer's Disease."
Researchers used PET scans (Positron Emission Tomography) to look at the brains of 65 healthy older people and 10 people with Alzheimer's. The participants' average age was about 75. The study also a control group of 11 people with an average age of about 25. Before the advent of these more sophisticated PET scans, it was not possible to study beta-amyloid on living patients. The protein and resulting plaque could only be examined on autopsy.
To determine how cognitively active people had been through their lives, the participants were interviewed and asked to assess how frequently they had engaged in "common cognitively demanding activities." The researchers looked at activities that were not dependent on socioeconomic status, such as "reading books or newspapers, writing letters or emails, going to the library, and playing games." They looked at five specific ages: 6, 12, 18, 40 and the participant's current age.
The research was funded in part by the Alzheimer's Association. Bill Fisher is CEO of the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California. He pointed out that even though this study was a small one, its focus on reading, writing and remaining cognitively active through life is an approach with few drawbacks.
"It's a small study. More work needs to be done, which is unfortunately always the case," he said. "There's nothing very risky about this intervention. It's a good thing for us anyway."
Landau agrees that more work is needed, but this study brings change to a challenging field. "It does open the door to looking at a whole set of other factors that may be linked to Alzheimer's that may help us understand the development of the disease. ... And we don't know whether, when you have amyloid in your brain, that means you're likely to develop memory problems in five years, or in 10 years or in 15 years. These are all really incredibly important questions."