Scientists are reporting advances in detecting and predicting Alzheimer’s disease at a conference in Honolulu this week, plus more proof that getting enough exercise and vitamin D may lower your risk.
There are better brain scans to spot Alzheimer’s disease. More genes that affect risk. Blood and spinal fluid tests that may help tell who will develop the mind-robbing illness and when.
But what is needed most — a treatment that does more than just ease symptoms — is not at hand. “We don’t have anything that slows or stops the course,” said William Thies, the Alzheimer’s Association scientific director. “We’re really in a silent window right now” with new drugs, he said.
Several promising ones flopped in late-stage tests — most recently, Pfizer Inc.’s Dimebon. Results on several others won’t be ready until next year.
Still, there is some progress against Alzheimer’s, a dementia that afflicts more than 5 million Americans and more than 26 million people worldwide. Highlights of the research reported this week:
• Prevention. Moderate to heavy exercisers had half the risk of developing dementia compared with less active people, researchers from the long-running Framingham Heart Study reported Sunday. Earlier studies also found exercise helps.
Another big government-funded study found that vitamin D deficiency can raise the risk of mental impairment up to fourfold. This doesn’t mean taking supplements is a good idea, doctors warn. A large study is testing whether that is safe and helps prevent a variety of diseases.
• Novel treatments. Tests of an insulin nose spray to improve cognition gave encouraging results, but “it’s still a pilot trial” and larger studies are needed to see if this works and is safe, said Laurie Ryan. She oversees Alzheimer’s study grants for the National Institute on Aging, which funded the work.
It’s based on the theory that Alz-heimer’s and diabetes are related. Diabetics seem to have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and Alzheimer’s patients tend to have insulin resistance, Ryan said.
• Improved detection. Many types of imaging can document dementia, which usually is diagnosed through cognition tests. For several years, scientists have used one such method — a radioactive dye and PET scans — to see the sticky brain plaque that is a key feature of Alzheimer’s. But the dye is tough to use, and at least four companies are developing better ones.
Philadelphia-based Avid Radiopharmaceuticals Inc. reports success with one such dye, and says it may offer an early warning for those on their way to developing Alzheimer’s.