A new Alzheimer’s disease study examines how cognitive and physical activity can help brains stay healthy.
IT CAN START slowly and with slight changes.
You misplace your keys. You walk into a room and can’t remember why you went there. While these common lapses can be chalked up to busy schedules or simply getting older, in time, the behavior can morph into forgetting conversations altogether or not being able to recall names of people you know. These are symptoms many patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease cite as the first signs something is off.
“Early on, they know they’re changing,” says Judy Pa, assistant professor at the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute and the neurology department — both in the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “They used to be outgoing and go to dinner parties, and now they have anxiety and don’t want to go out because they’re embarrassed. ‘What if I don’t remember Sue’s husband’s name this time?’ Or they start to tell the same stories over and over again, and their child or spouse will say, ‘Oh, you actually told me that already.’”
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ALZHEIMER’S TREATMENTS DON’T WORK
While there are a few medications approved by the FDA for the treatment of mild to moderate dementia, there is currently no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, a slow and progressive brain disease that affects 5.5 million Americans. Pa says the problem is these medications do not treat the disease itself; they only treat the symptoms.
“Unfortunately, they don’t really work,” she explains. “Patients will take them and say, ‘I am starting to feel better’ for maybe a few months, and then the effects wear off. A lot of studies suggest that even if the medication makes you feel better for a few months, the patient will still have the same amount of decline as those who never took it. Neurologists will prescribe them because they feel it’s worth a shot. But at the end of the day, it’s not a disease-modifying treatment.”
This lack of pharmacological options for those suffering with the disease is what inspired Pa to develop the research project, LEARNit (Lifestyle Enriching Activities for Research in Neuroscience Intervention Trial), which will look into whether two modifiable lifestyle factors — physical and cognitive activity — can have an impact on brain health in people who have not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but are at risk for the disease.
“What we’re looking for is a noninvasive way to help older adults keep their brains healthy,” says LEARNit Project Manager Lisette Isenberg, who holds a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. “The goal is to see whether a relatively easy intervention, as opposed to going on a drug, is going to make a big difference in how their brain is able to function as they age.”
COULD LIFESTYLE ADJUSTMENTS MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Pa says there is evidence that if you improve conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, depression and lack of cognitive stimulation, it can potentially reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
“There are different studies that have examined these modifiable lifestyle factors but not enough clinical trials to actually prove it,” Pa says. “They were observational and aggregated data that already existed, whereas in a trial, you can randomize people and have more control over any potential baseline differences between your groups.” LEARNit is one of the first studies to take an in-depth look at the effects of cognitive and physical activity from a brain-imaging perspective.