For years, scientists have searched for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Research has sought to solve the mysteries of this condition, which today affects not only the 50 million patients worldwide, but also the many millions of family members who provide care for them.
Some progress has been made, but full understanding of how to prevent or effectively treat the disease remains elusive. This is in part, say researchers, because Alzheimer’s disease is most likely caused by a combination of factors that can vary from person to person. For example, they speculate that many drug trials fail because only a subset of participants benefits from a particular drug.
“The truth is that a treatment that works for one set of patients may not work for another,” said Christos Davatzikos, Ph.D., senior professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (UPSM).
Davatzikos and his team believe that early identification of biomarkers—biological signs of the disease—could be the key to targeting drug treatments correctly. These biomarkers can be identified with genetic testing, imaging of the brain, and observation of behavioral symptoms. It’s likely that different factors combine in different ways among individuals. But for now, the UPSM team reports, “the rapid collection of data from tens of thousands of Alzheimer’s patients far exceeds the scientific community’s ability to make sense of it.”
The team hopes that artificial intelligence (AI) will help. Today, AI is used in everything from data analysis to facial recognition to self-driving cars. The UPSM team hopes to use the same type of “machine learning” to look at the biomarker data of 60,000 Alzheimer’s patients.
“We know that there are complex patterns in the brain that we may not be able to detect visually,” said co-investigator Li Shen, Ph.D. “Similarly, there may not be a single genetic marker that puts someone at high-risk for Alzheimer’s, but rather a combination of genes that may form a pattern and create a perfect storm. Machine learning can help to combine large datasets and tease out a complex pattern that couldn’t be seen before.”
The UPSM team will collaborate on this project with colleagues from 11 other research centers, funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging. It’s hoped that the insights they gain will lead to effective, targeted treatments.
For now, we rely on a growing body of research showing that lifestyle choices may prevent or slow the progression of the disease, no matter the other factors. In one intriguing 2019 study, neurologists from the Baycrest Rotman Research Institute in Toronto studied a set of identical triplets, two of whom had developed Alzheimer’s, while one had not. “These findings show that your genetic code doesn’t dictate whether you are guaranteed to develop Alzheimer’s,” said study author Dr. Morris Freedman. “There is hope for people who have a strong family history of dementia since there are other factors, whether it’s the environment or lifestyle—we don’t know what it is, which could either protect against or accelerate dementia.”
Experts at the University of Southern California Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center recently noted that modifying 12 risk factors throughout a person’s lifetime could prevent or delay perhaps 40% of cases of dementia. These are things to avoid:
- Physical inactivity
- Isolation and loneliness
- Untreated hearing loss
- Low level of education
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Head injuries
- Air pollution
Avoiding or addressing these risk factors is important throughout life and can slow the progression of the disease in those who have it.
As we wait for effective drug therapies, the goal is to provide good quality of life for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions. Just as the causes of dementia are unique to an individual, so is the best care plan.
Care planning isn’t a matter of artificial intelligence, but of emotional intelligence. People with dementia benefit from appropriate adaptations to activities, their living environment, and communication. Understanding how the disease is affecting the person helps family caregivers and professionals alike react effectively and with empathy to the changes caused by the disease.
As they support their loved one, family caregivers, too, need a great deal of support. Many families want to keep their loved one at home for as long as possible. For these families, professional in-home care helps the care plan work. It’s important to hire from an agency like Right at Home that provides cognitive support training for their caregivers, ensuring appropriate and empathetic care. Learn more about in-home Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or cognitive change services.