Healthy lifestyle habits, regular exercise and keeping brain active are some of the ways to reduce risks of Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common type of dementia, said an expert from New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).
A recent study published in the ‘Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease’ by researchers from the US finds a link between Covid-19 and Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers don’t conclude that Covid-19 causes Alzheimer’s but noted that senior citizens infected with coronavirus “ran a greater risk of receiving a new diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease within a year”.
According to the World Health Organisation, globally around 55 million people have dementia, and Alzheimer’s contribute to 60-70 per cent of cases.
NYUAD associate professor of biology Mazin Magzoub pointed out that memory loss is one of the first warning signs associated with Alzheimer’s and difficulties grow as the disease worsens.
“Your short-term memory typically goes first. As it progresses, your long-term memory also deteriorates, along with trouble recognising people, remembering names and performing tasks, as well as mood and personality changes. Eventually all brain functions are compromised. At the cellular level the neurons are being killed, and as the disease progresses the brain shrinks due to extensive loss of neurons, which results in the impairment of all cognitive functions. The tragic endpoint of Alzheimer’s disease is of course death.”
The disease may begin long before any symptoms appear.
“It’s most common for people to be diagnosed in their late 60s and 70s, but the early stages of it can happen much sooner, in your 50s. It’s a long progression before it becomes identifiable as Alzheimer’s.”
Magzoub said that longer lifespans and lifestyle changes are major factors leading to the disease.
“Lack of sleep increases the risk because metabolic waste that accumulates in our synapses while we are awake is cleared when we sleep. Our sleep quality has also deteriorated because we’re on our screens in bed and the light disturbs our sleep cycle. Stress, smoking, lack of exercise, obesity and poor diets all contribute. A poor diet can also leads to diabetes, and there is a link statistically between Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Some autopsy studies have shown that as many 80 per cent people with Alzheimer’s also had cardiovascular disease.”
Even though there are no breakthrough ways to prevent the disease, Magzoub underlined that physical and mental exercise are important.
“Getting enough sleep, exercise, and eating healthily ward off diabetes and cardiovascular issues, hearing loss can also contribute due to the lack of stimulation to one of the body’s senses. Anyone with hearing loss should wear a hearing aid.”
Magzoub said that maintaining the brain’s health is significant.
“Keeping the brain active is also crucial. When we learn something new, we create new neural connections. So people who engage regularly in mentally stimulating activities, even deep into old age, have more cognitive reserve, which helps protect them from the effects of Alzheimer’s. The lesson for the rest of us is to do something completely new for our brains, such as learning a foreign language, learning to play music, or taking dance lessons. Any completely new activity that pushes your neurons to make new connections can help overcome the loss of older ones.”
Meanwhile, there have been promising developments around the world to combat the disease.
At NYUAD, a team of researchers led by Magzoub designed proteins that can be utilised to combat Alzheimer’s disease. The initial findings were first published in 2020.
“We designed protein-based therapeutics that prevent protein aggregation associated with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. This has yielded promising results in cellular models and even mouse models of the disease. But of course, the jump from mice to humans is quite a leap and it will take a while to get there.”
Last month, phase 3 clinical trial results for a new drug have slowed the cognitive decline rate in Alzheimer’s patients by 27 per cent after 18 months of treatment.
Magzoub is hopeful that further progress will be made that “helps treat rather than just manage this disease”.
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