Alzheimer’s Onset Delay in U.S. and Europe Gives Prevention Hope

The onset of Alzheimer’s begins later in life now than 30 years ago in developed nations, according to researchers who tie the change to more education and better heart health.

The study, in Framingham, Massachusetts, is one of several looking at the demographics of Alzheimer’s at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference held this week in Copenhagen. In total, they suggest the extent of a person’s schooling and their cardiovascular health are key factors in trimming risk. In the Framingham study, later onset came only in those with at least a high school education, the researchers found, and was more pronounced in women than men.

One trial in Finland suggested the body can be conditioned to hold off mental decline with gym exercising, good food choices and cognitive training. As proposed pharmaceutical interventions for the disease have largely failed, the results offer some hope, researchers said.

“There’s actually something you can do to try and prevent or delay the disease, and that’s just to take care of your cardiovascular health and stay mentally active, especially during mid-life,” said Claudia Satizabal, lead researcher for dementia trends in the multi-generational study of residents of Framingham, Massachusetts ongoing on since 1975.

The findings are especially important in countries like the U.S., where the population is aging.

By 2030, there will be 72.1 million Americans older than 65, more than double the number in 2000, according to federal health statistics. The percentage of the population in this age group will grow to 19 percent in 2030 from 12.4 percent in 2000.

$45 Million Funding

The U.S. government pledged $45 million in added research funding for Alzheimer’s in September. The bulk of that money will go for a prevention trial of an experimental medicine for healthy older adults with a genetic predisposition to the illness. Now, no effective remedies are marketed that can slow or treat the disease, only drugs to ease symptoms.

In the Framingham study, researchers defined four non-overlapping time windows across 30 years and studied new cases of dementia in participants aged 60 or older.

After adjusting for age and gender, the investigators found that new cases dropped 22 percent from the first window to the second as onset was pushed back to a later age group. They fell 38 percent in the third time window and 44 percent in the fourth.

Other reports presented also found that the rates of new dementia cases had lowered over time for certain age groups in developed nations including in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the U.K.

Diabetes, Obesity

Still, Kenneth Langa, a professor of internal medicine at Ann Arbor-based University of Michigan who conducted a review of Alzheimer’s studies, cautioned in a telephone interview that any gains achieved in recent years may be threatened by the growing incidence of diabetes and obesity, both diseases that affect heart health.

“Over the next twenty years the balance of growth in obesity and diabetes versus decreasing risk from better control of blood pressure will be very important for societal trends in dementia,” he said.

In the U.S., Alzheimer’s may be the nation’s third-most deadly killer after heart disease and cancer, according to a report at the meeting by the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago in March. There are more than five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, a mind-robbing illness that kills people when it impairs parts of the brain that control basic functions like breathing and swallowing.

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