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What Every Caregiver Should Know About Alzheimer’s Research

"Alzheimer's disease breeds desperation and people will look for answers anywhere they can."

The words of Dr. William Thies, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer of the Alzheimer's Association have a distinctly truthful ring in light of the recent flood of news reports regarding advances in dementia research.

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It sometimes seems as though there is a revolutionary Alzheimer's screening method, or a new drug that is supposed to delay the effects of the disease on the human brain discovered every other day.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently published a study that concluded that signs of cognitive decline can be found in people as young as 45 years old.

Even more shocking, a few years ago, a series of studies came out saying that smoking might provide some sort of protective effect against cognitive decline. A more recent study suggests that nicotine patches may help people in the beginning stages of memory loss.

What does all of this mean exactly? Should a 47-year-old be worried about dementia if she misplaces her keys a couple of times? Should nonsmokers slap on a nicotine patch in the hopes that it will prevent them from losing their memory?

It's easy to see how the results of studies like this can be misleading and anxiety producing.

The role of the media

According to Thies, much of the confusion and concern surrounding Alzheimer's findings stems from how a study is covered by the media.

He says that reporters too often overdramatize study results, portraying them as being more important or impactful than they really are. Many times, new research studies may present a possible new diagnostic tool or therapy option. But, cold, hard facts about Alzheimer's are discovered less frequently than people are led to believe.

The digital age's double-edged sword

Thanks to the Internet, the public has greater access to more media outlets than ever before. People can find out about breaking news events minutes after they happen. And, through the online publication of research journals, scientific studies have never been more widely available.

Using the BMJ study as an example, a quick Google News search comes up with 351 results for the phrase ‘cognitive decline begins at 45.'

Headlines included in the first page of search results include; "‘Old' starts at 45," "Sigh…45 is the new 60 for memory loss," and "You're Already Losing Your Mind."

If those phrases aren't enough to scare you…

Of course, headlines are meant to grab person's attention and make them want to stop what they are doing and read more—an increasingly difficult task in our ever more connected world.

After persuading a person to read a story, a reporter often tones down the initial shock of their headline with a series of facts and figures from the actual research report.

But, is that enough to erase the initial impact of the headline?

A 2007 study conducted by researchers from McGill University discovered that people who only read the headline of a political news story came away with a different opinion than those who only read the story itself. In the stories they studies, the issues presented in the headlines differed widely from those covered by the actual story itself.

A Caregiver's Defense

The good news is that caregivers don't have to be subject to the whims and fear-mongering of the popular press.

According to Thies, there are ways to tell whether a research study about Alzheimer's or another form of dementia is relevant.

He says that discerning whether a study has immediate impact on a person dealing with the disease is relatively easy—if you know what to look for.

As you read through coverage on a particular study, look for a few key pieces of information:

  1. Is the study conducted on humans, animals, or in a test tube? Unless the study featured humans as the primary test subjects, the discovery isn't likely to change how Alzheimer's is managed in the near future.
  2. How many people are involved? An impactful study will likely include a diverse group of hundreds or thousands of people. The results of a study with fewer than 30 people generally cannot be applied to a larger population.
  3. Is there FDA approval? A new drug or therapy that has garnered FDA approval should be considered pretty important. FDA approval requires that a significant volume of information and indicates that the new drug will be available within a year or two.
  4. Who's footing the bill? The results of studies funded by private companies should be taken with a grain of salt. They may be valid, but the possibility for bias and excessive marketing may make a study seem more important than it actually is.

Thies also says that the Alzheimer's Association is constantly on the lookout for stories that are misreporting research findings. They even have a page on their website dedicated to dispelling Alzheimer's myths.

A Second Look at Cognitive Decline at Age 45

Using Thies' guidelines, the results of the BMJ study seem to be pretty solid. It involved a relatively diverse pool of 4,700 people, making it somewhat applicable to the larger population.

But, digging a little further into the issue of age-related cognitive decline shows that this doesn't necessarily mean that people should be worried about their memory failing them at 45.

Prior to this study, significant cognitive decline caused by most dementias (excluding early-onset) was thought to begin around age 60. But, some scientists are beginning to think that a decrease in mental capacity may begin sooner than that in some people.

This debate is important to medical professionals who feel that if they can catch dementia in its beginning stages, they may find a way to more effectively slow or stop it. While this is an important goal for researchers endeavoring to find a cure, it is not very relevant to a person caring for someone already in the throes of the disease, or someone who is worried that they might be at risk for developing dementia.

Just the facts Ma'am

Thies believes that everyone should try to become more informed about Alzheimer's. He says that, even if a person is not currently affected by the disease, chances are that someday they will be and they should do what they can to be prepared.

Making sense of the wealth of dementia and Alzheimer's research isn't easy. So, for those who just want the facts, as they currently stand, here they are:

  • Age increases your risk. According to the Alzheimer's Association, beyond the age of 65 years, a person's risk for developing Alzheimer's increases twofold every five years. Additionally, about 50% of people 85 and older have to deal with symptoms of Alzheimer's.
  • There is no "cure" for Alzheimer's disease, and nothing can stop or delay its advancement. However, certain medications are thought to temporarily slow down cognitive decline in some people with dementia.
  • Research has consistently showed that maintaining a healthy body is important to maintaining a healthy mind. Hypertension, obesity and cardiac disease have all been linked to an increased risk for dementia. Eating a well-balanced diet and avoiding things like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can't hurt when trying to stave off dementia.
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