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    Alzheimer’s Research Update: Highlights from the 2020 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference

    By Dr. Marcy Adelman–

    At the recent virtual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC), several studies reported groundbreaking news of a newly developed, inexpensive, accessible, and highly accurate blood test (p tau217) that can identify people with Alzheimer’s disease from those without it or with other types of dementia. The test identified people with Alzheimer’s with an 89% to 98% accuracy. 

    Experts and researchers were encouraged and quick to praise the diagnostic tool as a potential game changer. Maria Carrillo, the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer, remarked, “We’ve never seen that much precision in previous efforts.” Dr. Eric Reiman—CEO of Banner Research, Executive Director of Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, and a senior author of one of the studies—stated that the diagnostic blood test has “the potential to revolutionize Alzheimer’s research, treatment, and prevention trials and clinical care.”

    I asked Edie Yau, Director, Diversity & Inclusion, Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada, what impact this blood test will have on people living with Alzheimer’s. She replied, “Blood tests may offer a simple and more accessible approach to improve diagnosis, monitor treatment, and identify appropriate people for clinical trials. Families facing Alzheimer’s now and in the future would benefit greatly from a simple test that allows early detection. For example, it would allow important care and planning steps to take place early in the disease process.”

    She continued, “And in terms of health equity, a simple blood test will be far more accessible than a PET scan or measuring amyloids or tau proteins in spinal fluid (CSF) which are expensive and invasive.”

    The p tau217 blood test will undergo further testing in larger studies with more diverse populations. The test could be available in as little as two to three years.

    Vaccines Correlate with Lower Risk for Alzheimer’s

    Separate studies have reported that multiple vaccines for the flu and pneumonia are associated with lower risk for Alzheimer’s. One study examined a large American health record data set of more than 9000 patients over 60 years of age. The study reported that flu vaccination was associated with a 17% reduction in Alzheimer’s, and that more frequent flu vaccinations were associated with another 13% reduction. A study on the impact of receiving a pneumonia vaccine in study participants between the ages of 65 and 75 reduced Alzheimer’s risk by up to 40% in people without a genetic risk factor. 

    It isn’t clear, however, if the people who are vaccinated also take care of their health in other ways such as nutrition, exercise, accessing health care when needed, and that these health behaviors add up to lower risk of Alzheimer’s or if it is the vaccine itself.  These studies show promising results in risk reduction, but further studies need to be done to understand causality. In the meantime, the takeaway is, “Get vaccinated.”

    Risk Factors in African Americans and Hispanic/Latinos

    Health and health behaviors across the life cycle can have a huge impact on later life brain health and quality of life. Heart health and later life cognition are significantly interconnected. In a study of more than 700 African Americans, researchers found that having diabetes, high blood pressure, or two or more heart health risk factors in adolescence or young adulthood was associated with significantly worse later life cognition.

    Health disparities begun in early childhood continue to have an impact across the life cycle. Research has shown that African Americans are 2 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than white people. Schools need to provide nutritional lunches, recreational classes, and health information. Health care needs to be more accessible and affordable.

    Hispanic Americans are 1 1/2 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than white people. The Latinos-Investigation of Neurocognitive Aging is studying why Hispanic/Latinos are at greater risk for dementia and what to do about it. Study results suggest that modifying risk factors such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease may reduce the risk of cognitive impairment in later life.

    The intersection of race and Alzheimer’s disease needs to be more fully understood and addressed across the life cycle.

    Dr. Marcy Adelman, a psychologist and LGBTQ+ longevity advocate and policy adviser, oversees the Aging in Community column. She serves on the California Commission on Aging, the Governor’s Alzheimer’s Prevention and Preparedness Task Force, the Board of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California, and the San Francisco Dignity Fund Oversight and Advisory Committee. She is the Co-Founder of Openhouse, the only San Francisco nonprofit exclusively focused on the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ older adults.

    Published on August 13, 2020