New research shows that a milder type of mental decline that often precedes Alzheimer's disease is much more common than thought.
Nearly a million older Americans slide from normal memory into mild impairment each year, doctors reported Monday at a medical conference in Chicago. That's in addition to the half million Americans who develop full-blown Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
The problem is sure to grow as Baby Boomers age. Dr. Ralph Nixon, a New York psychiatrist and adviser to the Alzheimer's Association, was blunt. "We're facing a crisis," he said.
In other news, patients with early Alzheimer's disease who exercised regularly saw less deterioration in the areas of the brain which control memory, according to a study released Sunday at the 2008 International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease in Chicago.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies showed that exercise positively affected the hippocampus region of patients' brains, an area which is important for both memory and balance. In Alzheimer's, the hippocampus is one of the first parts of the brain to suffer damage.
Exercise and physical fitness have been shown to slow down age-related brain cell death in healthy older adults, and earlier this month a preliminary study was published showing that exercise may help slow brain shrinkage in people with early Alzheimer's disease.
Now, researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., have used MRI and other neuroimaging tools to analyze how exercise affects the brains of those with early Alzheimer's.
The researchers found that patients with early Alzheimer's had a "significant relationship" between the size of key brain areas associated with memory and fitness, unlike healthy older adults. Those patients with better fitness ratings had less brain tissue atrophy and those with worse fitness had more brain damage.
"This is the first study to get an inside look into specifically where these changes occur in the brain — we're able to locate the changes associated with fitness to the actual memory region, the hippocampus, which is a key area for Alzheimer's-related atrophy," said Robyn A. Honea, PhD, a lead investigator on the study. "This suggests that maintaining cardiorespiratory fitness may positively modify Alzheimer's-related brain atrophy."
The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging and National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Another report from ICAD 2008 showed that a 12-month home-based exercise program reduced falls and improved balance in patients with dementia. According to researchers from Western Medicine, Nedlands, Western Australia, people suffering from dementia fall up to three times more than those who have no cognitive impairment.
"Falls have a negative impact on a person's quality of life, often resulting in nursing home placement, increased mortality and significant costs to the community," said Megan J. Wraith, a researcher on the study. "Targeting this high risk group may be a relatively cost effective way of having a significant impact on the overall rate of falling in the elderly."
The study was funded by the Sir Charles Gairdner Research Foundation and Hollywood Private Hospital Research Foundation.
Currently, the prognosis for patients with Alzheimer's is bleak. The Alzheimer's treatment market is small, led by Pfizer Inc.'s Aricept, Forest Laboratories Inc.'s Namenda, Razadyne from Johnson & Johnson and Shire Ltd., Novartis AG's Exelon and Sciele Pharma Inc.'s Cognex. But while those drugs fight Alzheimer's symptoms, they can't stop its ultimate progress.
Wyeth and Elan Corp. are currently developing a new kind of Alzheimer's treatment, bapineuzumab, which is designed to actually slow progress of the disease. In June, study data showed that drug was shown to benefit Alzheimer's patients who lacked a certain gene.