Alzheimer’s drug takes a hit, but diagnoses may become easier

Alzheimer’s research is continuing -- that’s one bright side we can take from the mixed Alzheimer’s news this week.  

The positive news came when researchers announced they might be able to spot Alzheimer’s in the brain nearly a decade before the disease begins to show.

In a new study led by Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, researchers used MRIs to assess the brains of two groups of people. Those with smaller Alzheimer’s-related areas were more likely to develop the disease 7 to 11 years down the road. The researchers point out that such scans could ultimately be useful for diagnosing Alzheimer’s. 

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But the negative news was truly disheartening. A commonly prescribed drug to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s was found ineffective for mild cases. Memantine, brand name Namenda, doesn’t appear to slow memory loss any better than a sugar pill for patients in the early stages of the disease, researchers have concluded.

In fact, none of the handful of drugs approved for Alzheimer’s patients can slow, much less stop, the disease. They can only treat symptoms such as memory problems and confusion. 

The latest finding comes on the heels of a string of drug failures -- heartbreaking for those already suffering with the disease and for their families.

For those who want to lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s -- well, there’s not enough scientific evidence that nutritional supplements, diets or computer programs work either, according to a report last year.


Still, some people don’t want to just hope for the best; they feel the need to do something, anything. If that’s the case, here’s a look at what research suggests might --- repeat, might -- slow or reduce the risk of cognitive decline:

-- Take a walk. Healthy adults who walked at least six miles a week had higher brain volume, an indicator of brain health, in one study. Cognitively impaired adults needed to walk 5 miles a week for similar results.

-- Eat healthy. People who have diets high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats -- a la the Mediterranean diet -- appear to have a reduced risk of dementia. Omega-3 fatty acids, a “brain food” found in some fish, have been linked to reduced risk as well. Gingko biloba doesn’t appear to do anything at all, however. 

-- Stimulate yourself mentally. Learning a new language, reading, and being socially active have been linked to slower mental decline.

Science hasn’t vetted these out these strategies completely, but it’s safe to say they can’t hurt.

In the meantime, take solace in the wealth of ongoing Alzheimer’s research. A cure may not be around the corner, but researchers aren’t giving up.