5 things researchers learned about Alzheimer’s this year

Alzheimer’s disease, a condition characterized by the slow erosion of thinking and memory, is the nation’s sixth-leading killer, and the No. 1 cause of dementia. Those touched by the disease know how devastating it can be, and they’re not alone. Alzheimer’s affects 5.2 million people in the U.S., including 13 percent of those over age 65, and 40 percent of those over 85.

Perhaps because the disease is so widespread and damaging, researchers are continually searching for causes, cures and anything that can slow or delay its onset. Each year, more rays of hope emerge from the dark cloud that is Alzheimer’s, and this year is no exception. Here are a few of the latest developments.

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Electricity and magnets show promise as treatments

Researchers have known for some time that magnetic stimulation may help the brain function, but this year more progress was reported. The treatment, called TMS — for transcranial magnetic stimulation — is a noninvasive procedure that delivers an electric current to specific parts of the brain using a magnet.

In May, researchers at New York University’s medical school published a small study showing that TMS improved cognitive function and language skills in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers also took brain scans that showed increased activity in the part of the brain that controls language.

Last month, researchers at Northwestern University published a similar study in the journal Science, but instead of language skills, memory was targeted. Researchers used TMS to stimulate a region of the brain near the hippocampus, which controls memory. The success of this study surpassed expectations, and it could help pave the way for a noninvasive treatment for Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The link between Alzheimer’s and vitamin D has been confirmed

Vitamin D seems to be vital for a healthy brain. Scientists and doctors have known for some time that a vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of developing multiple sclerosis, another brain disorder, and can even make the disease more severe. This year, the suspected link between vitamin D deficiency and Alzheimer’s was confirmed.

In the study, researchers at England’s Exeter University looked at data and medical records from over 1,600 people. The survey found that people who were moderately deficient in vitamin D face a 53 percent higher chance of developing dementia, and those who were severely deficient have a 125 percent higher risk of dementia. For Alzheimer’s specifically, a moderate vitamin D deficiency carried a 69 percent increased risk of developing the disease.

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Fish oil supplements appear to slow memory loss

In July, researchers at Rhode Island Hospital published a study in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia that included brain scans and memory tests of over 800 older adults. Patients with normal brain function, mild impairment and those with Alzheimer’s disease were included in the study. Interestingly, patients who had regularly taken fish oil supplements had a lower rate of brain atrophy and less cognitive decline than patients who had not.

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Problematic drinking midlife may double the risk of dementia

Drinking in excess has been known to have negative effects on the liver and brain, and now a study published in July has established a significant link to memory. The study, also by researchers at Exeter, looked at drinking patterns of over 6,500 adults in midlife. Researches found that those who drank enough to worry themselves or those around them faced double the risk of developing some kind of dementia later in life.

Keeping your body fit helps keep your brain fit

Just like vitamin D, research is consistently emerging that physical fitness is protective against many brain disorders, and Alzheimer’s is no exception. In fact, evidence of this association seems to be gaining momentum every day. In the past month alone, three published studies have found links between physical health and brain health.

In mid-August, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers showed that hardening of the arteries, caused by poor cardiovascular fitness, also occurs in the brain, which can lead to cognitive defects. Then, a study in the British Medical Journal reported that obesity in early to midlife increases the risk of dementia later. And the dementia risk is more than tripled for people who are severely obese in their thirties.

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Just this month, German researchers published research on over 4,300 participants who were followed over five years. People ages 50-65 with Type 2 diabetes, which is strongly associated with obesity, had double the risk of mild cognitive impairment. Interestingly, people ages 66-80 showed no such connection, so more research is needed. Either way, it seems that physical fitness has once again been shown to be about more than just appearance.

Lacie Glover writes forNerdWallet Health, a website that helps people reduce their medical bills.