With the fast-increasing senior population around the world (including Canada), the increasing incidence of dementia follows. We hear regularly about the rising rates of dementia in many countries, but it seems to me that we hear less about what’s happening in the area of research into the diseases collectively known as “Dementia.”
While we are fortunate that more research is being done today, we should try to know a little more about it. Here are some of the latest findings:
The brain’s (apparent) ‘weak spot’
Last week, several newspapers and journals wrote about a British research discovery of the apparent “weak spot” in the brain, susceptible to not only dementia but also schizophrenia. The potential connection of the two diseases was not well understood before.
Neuroscientists found an area of the brain, called “a wide-ranging network,” which develops late in adolescence but can start to degenerate early, with aging.
The study’s author, Dr. Gwenaelle Douaud, said: “Our results show that the same specific parts of the brain not only develop more slowly but also degenerate faster than other parts. These complex regions, which combine information coming from various senses, seem to be more vulnerable than the rest of the brain to both schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, even though these two diseases have different origins and appear at very different, almost opposite, times of life.”
The researchers found a network of regions in the brain which tended to develop together and degenerate together later in life. The network reaches many important parts of the brain, connecting areas involved in higher-order thinking.
The doctor’s comments certainly lend credibility to the recommendations of countless lawyers (including this one) that people do their Capacity and Estate planning when they have the capacity and are healthy!
Wake up and prevent Alzheimer’s?
At the Washington University School of Medicine, researchers recently discovered that a protein that stimulates the brain to awaken from sleep may be a target for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
The scientists apparently established links between sleep problems and Alzheimer’s. They’ve shown in mice and people that sleep loss contributes to the growth of brain plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s. Eliminating that protein (called Orexin) made mice sleep longer, and slowed the production of brain plaques.
Dr. David Holtzman said: “Blocking Orexin to increase sleep in patients with sleep abnormalities, or perhaps even to improve sleep efficiency in healthy people, may be a way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.”
The scientists also reversed their experiment and artificially increased Orexin levels throughout mices’ brains, which caused not only a longer period of wakefulness but also the development of more Alzheimer’s-like plaques.
The FDA in the United States recently approved a medication called Belsomra, the first sleep medication that affects Orexin. The researchers hope to assess it in future.
Dance to ward off dementia
November was Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. In New York City, seniors fought back with their feet. At the Fred Astaire Dance Studio, seniors danced not only for fun but also to ward off the disease. Marina Tarsinov, the studio owner, said:
“Ballroom dancing isn’t just physical activity. It has social, emotional and intellectual properties. Remembering steps, moving in precise time, adapting to movements all help boost brain power, which may protect against developing Alzheimer’s later in life.”
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that seniors who regularly ballroom dance experience a 76% reduction in the risk of developing dementia. “This beats lifting weights,” said 89-year-old dancer Ed Robbins.
As our researchers take steps to get closer to cures for these heartbreaking diseases, it’s good to know we can take our own “steps” to help as well.
This column ran in the Richmond Review on December 5, 2014.