Six million of us have full-blown Alzheimer’s disease, including 10% of those over 65 and half of those over 80.
And many more suffer from other types of dementia or cognitive impairment usually associated with age. Actor Bruce Willis, just 68, is the latest heartbreaking example in the public eye.
So when it comes to dementia and the aging brain, all news is good news. And this week, we got not one but two hopeful news. One that’s useful to us right now, and one that hints at something potentially very important in the future.
Let’s start with the useful one here and now. Some fascinating new research from the University of California, Riverside suggests that we can really rejuvenate our aging brains and reduce the number of those senior moments, at older ages than previously thought.
Remember how fast your brain was when you were young? Like most people, I just assumed it was because my brain was neurologically new at the time and probably more nimble. And there is something to that.
But some scientists have speculated that it is also because of the school environment. Back then, we were stuck in a classroom all day, simultaneously learning several different skills, from composition to trigonometry. We have teachers and we are in a social environment with other children learning the same thing at the same time.
Some scientists have wondered if we could make our minds more agile again, even at older ages, if we tried to replicate some of that environment.
So that’s what researchers did at UC Riverside. And it worked.
In two separate studies, older people spent 7 hours a week learning three different skills over a period of 3 to 3.5 months. The participants were on average 66 years old in the first study and 69 in the second. Skills included Spanish language, photography, drawing, music composition and using an iPad. They spent two hours a week on each, as well as a one-hour discussion each week on one of the topics. Above all, for each participant, it was about new skills. No one was relearning something they already knew.
Overall, the time and commitment for those 12 or 15 weeks “was similar to a full undergraduate course load,” the researchers report. “Our intervention included learning new skills, motivational lectures and social peer support, as we originally intended to closely mimic the rich and supportive learning environments provided to children, adolescents and adults. young adults.”
Here’s the payoff: Study participants showed dramatic improvements, and not just in the three new skills they learned. They also showed “significant increases” in mental abilities across a battery of tests designed to measure the wide range of cognitive abilities, the researchers report. This includes thinking and memory ability tests.
And these improvements weren’t just temporary. While participants in the studies showed cognitive gains during the program and at the end of it, they also showed additional gains for up to a full year thereafter.
“The elderly people continued to increase their cognitive abilities even one year after the end of the intervention,” the researchers report. “The present study found significant improvements up to one year after the end of the learning intervention.” The results indicate “that a multi-skilled learning intervention has the potential to induce lasting cognitive improvements in older adults.”
A caveat is that both studies were small: six people in one, 27 in another. Another is that the participant groups were not ethnically diverse. We will have to see if other larger studies replicate the results.
But studies suggest that enrolling in programs at your local adult education center won’t just teach you Spanish, oil painting or Thai cooking and get you out of the house. They also rejuvenate your brain in the long run.
Meanwhile, there was other hopeful news about dementia. Scientists have long known that people who eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia are more likely to have sleep problems in the years before the onset of the disease. The link is not fully known: does disturbed sleep cause the brain to break down, or vice versa?
But researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have made a small but potentially huge discovery.
An already available sleeping pill might help.
A small number of patients who have taken the Suvorexant pill, which is manufactured by Merck
and marketed under the brand name Belsomra, saw marked and immediate reductions in the two main biological markers of Alzheimer’s disease.
These markers are the “beta-amyloid” and “tau” proteins that appear in the brains of people with dementia.
The research involved 38 people between the ages of 45 and 65. Some received a higher dose of 20 milligrams of sleep aid before falling asleep. Others received 10 milligrams. Others received a placebo. The researchers then took a lumbar puncture every two hours to analyze their cerebrospinal fluid.
“In the cerebrospinal fluid of people who received the high dose of suvorexant, amyloid levels fell by 10% to 20% and levels of a key form of tau known as hyperphosphoryl tau fell by 10% to 15%, compared to people who received a placebo,” report the researchers.They repeated the test a second night, with the same result.
What does it mean? Maybe nothing. Perhaps a huge sum.
“This is a small proof-of-concept study,” warned the study’s lead author, Brendan Lucey, professor of neurology at the University of Washington and director of the center for sleep medicine, in a communicated. “It would be premature for people who fear developing Alzheimer’s disease to interpret this as a reason to start taking suvorexant every night.”
That said, he said these results were “very encouraging. This drug is already available and proven to be safe, and we now have evidence that it affects protein levels that are key to driving Alzheimer’s disease.
There are many potential breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s disease, and so far none of them have come to fruition. There is currently no cure and there is little we can do to slow the disease, let alone stop it. A new drug that can slow progression early on is expensive and not currently covered by health insurance.
But if it turns out that the right sleeping pills can make a difference, that would be huge. Stay tuned.