One of the more frustrating and challenging health conditions of our modern world is Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia that affects residents of Cedar Rapids and elsewhere.
While research continues into how and why this progressive health condition takes place, more and more people are being diagnosed with it and their families are also affected. Though research has found ways to slow down the deterioration of the brain and body, it often leads to a need for hospice care and ultimately death.
The team at Above and Beyond Home Health Care and Hospice have worked with many clients who are experiencing different stages of Alzheimer’s disease. We’ve seen how this condition can be frustrating and generally unpleasant to the client and to those around him or her.
We’ve also seen that there is a wide variety of research taking place around the world into what’s happening in the brain and how to reverse any damage done.
So far, researchers have observed how the disease can block proteins covering parts of the brain which eventually leads to brain cells unable to get blood to them and then dying. Although efforts can take place to increase the number of healthy brain cells with everything from learning a musical instrument to solving puzzles, enough dying cells can ultimately cause permanent damage.
This can affect mental processing, memory, and more. Advanced forms of Alzheimer’s disease can include physical changes such as a lack of coordination and balance to an inability to eat.
At the same time that research is taking place, however, the number of cases in the U.S. and worldwide is predicted to grow.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million people have been diagnosed with this form of dementia, but the number is supposed to grow to 14 million by 2050.
It’s the sixth most common cause of death, and 1 in 3 seniors are expected to die due to it.
Looking for a gene
One current area of research is looking at why some people are more susceptible than others to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease since the disease seems to be less tied to environmental factors and economic conditions and more to genetics.
Perhaps there are certain genetic markers in some people’s DNA that make them more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia or even show signs earlier in life.
A study at the University of Southern California recently published in “Nature” is exploring a gene variant known as APOE4, which appears linked to the blood-brain barrier, and allows or blocks certain proteins, natural sugars, and other compounds from entering the brain.
One current theory of Alzheimer’s disease is that the barrier does things it’s not supposed to, such as blocking glucose from entering the brain which can effectively ‘starve’ cells. At the same time, it allows other toxins to enter, such as the plaques which build up and further damage cells.
The theory from the APOE4 study is that observing similar damage to the blood vessels which are supposed to seal the blood-brain barrier is a good initial predictor of Alzheimer’s disease, whether or not the different types of plaque are detected.
People with Alzheimer’s disease who are observed to be carrying the APOE4 genetic marker may be linked to more damage to special cells called pericytes. Damaged pericytes can lead to a faster injury to the blood-brain barrier and allow more toxins to enter.
APOE4 is one of a group of proteins that move cholesterol through the brain. People with this certain type of protein are seen to be at higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Animal and human testing have helped scientists learn more about the important role of the blood-brain barrier and the condition of pericytes. But it hasn’t been looked at necessarily as a possible indicator of Alzheimer’s risk.
Pulling together the pieces
In the study being discussed, 435 participants underwent a variety of memory tests, had images of their brain taken, and biomarkers placed. Participants ranged from those with generally good cognition to those with mild mental impairment often seen as early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease.
Those in the group who had the APOE4 genetic marker showed signs of a blood-brain barrier that wasn’t functioning optimally, including leaks in the parts of the brain that are considered especially vital for cognition and memory. h
Study participants who already were suffering from cognitive damage and had the APOE4 marker were observed to have even more blood leakage in these areas.
This line of research into possible common genetic links as a predictor of Alzheimer’s disease could be an encouraging lead to follow toward a possible cure, while others continue to look into the role of plaques and proteins.
June is an excellent opportunity for people to learn more.
It’s officially Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, where people are encouraged to do more research and also help spread the word by posting their own photos and the #endalz hashtag on social media.