2015 was a monumental year for fight against Alzheimer’s disease

Bex VanKoot
Science and Weather

[Photo: Thinkstock]

In Canada today, nearly three quarters of a million people experience dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is the prevailing cause. That number is expected to double in the next 15 years. Canadians everywhere, even those who aren’t affected by Alzheimer’s disease themselves, are likely to experience the consequences of a healthcare system overburdened by the needs of an aging population. According to the Alzheimer Society’s website, by 2040 family caregivers will be working 1.2 billion unpaid hours yearly to care for a spouse, parent, or other family member with dementia.

In an interview with Yahoo Canada, Alzheimer Society of Canada’s scientific advisor Larry Chambers was quick to point out that while many interesting studies have been done in the past decade, there have been no new Alzheimer’s drugs on the market in at least 12 years. This owes to the fact that our knowledge of dementia is incredibly limited, something researchers are hoping to change, and fast. Meanwhile, as scientists strive for this understanding and better treatment plans, others are struggling with the wide-reaching social impact that dementia diseases have on our society.

During Alzheimer Awareness Month in Canada this January, many researchers and organizers are looking back on the past year to see what progress we have made, even if we haven’t discovered new pharmaceutical interventions for dementia. As it turns out, 2015 may have been a pivotal year for dementia sufferers, as new organizations were founded, preventative possibilities published, and financial commitments made, with all roads leading to a better future for Alzheimer’s patients and their families.

Dementia Friends

In March, the Alzheimer Society launched the Dementia Friends website, part of a Government of Canada initiative, “to create a more aware and informed Canadian population to dispel myths and reduce stigma about dementia.” The site provides information about dementia, signs and symptoms, myths and facts, tips for communicating with and caring for people with various kinds of dementia, and contact details for provincial Alzheimer societies which offer various programs and services.

The site has more than 16,680 active members, each a dementia friend who, “learns a little bit more about what it’s like to live with dementia and then turns that understanding into simple actions that can help people with dementia live well.”

Lifestyle Changes

One of the most promising stories of the year in Alzheimer’s news was a research summary published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association providing ample evidence that specific lifestyle changes may provide preventative protection against dementia.

According to the study, there are specific steps that can be taken to improve overall health, many of which seem to contribute to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. These include regular cardiovascular exercise that gets your heart pumping and a healthy diet rich in vitamins and minerals from a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, and healthy fats from foods like olives, avocados and fish. Diet and exercise aren’t the only important factors, however. Creative and intellectual challenges, as well as continuing education, both seem to play a role in maintaining neuroplasticity and brain health.

The Institute of Medicine’s Cognitive Aging Report

In August, the Institute of Medicine in the U.S. published a lengthy document on the subject of cognitive aging. The report sets out to provide a framework for understanding our options, “to carefully examine what is known about cognitive aging, to identify the positive steps that can be taken to promote cognitive health, and then to take action to implement those changes by informing and activating the public, the health sector, nonprofit and professional associations, communities, the private sector, and government agencies.”

In the Action Guides created from the report, researchers aim first to differentiate between diseases like Alzheimer’s and normal cognitive aging - the forgetfulness we all associate with getting on in years. Not only is this important to ease the fears of the 90 per cent of individuals who won’t develop Alzheimer’s as they grow older, but also for health care providers and family members alike to recognize the symptoms of a more serious condition.

The Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging

Responding to the growing concerns about the state of dementia treatment in Canada, the Alzheimer Society and several other partnering organizations launched a new initiative in September, the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA). The group, designed as a “super hub of research,” aims to bring scientists, clinicians and researchers together for more effective and efficient working conditions. “This is meant to speed up cures for neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and improve care through improved collaboration and sharing of resources and findings,” the website claims.

Unfortunately, Chambers said, researchers are often isolated, intensely focused on narrow paths, with each scientist or team working in their own tiny niches. There is little room in the current scientific culture for cross-modality collaboration, though it can lead to powerful breakthroughs. The CCNA hopes to provide the structure needed for this forward movement, bringing people from all dimensions of study together.

In addition to this work, the Alzheimer Society continues to call on the federal government to devise their own national dementia strategy, helping provide support for Canadians in research, prevention and living with dementia.

Clinton Makes a Pledge

While we wait on the Canadian government to get their plan in gear, we can look to the U.S. for inspiration. In December, the Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton announced some big ideas to help further Alzheimer’s research. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Clinton rolled out a plan…aimed at finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease through a big increase in government research spending.” Spending in the amount of $2 billion a year, to be exact, hoping to find a cure by 2025.

While the Canadian government seems unlikely to unleash a multi-billion-dollar effort on dealing with dementia, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has launched their own Dementia Research Strategy with the same aim, a cure in the next decade. Together the Institutes of Aging, Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction are empowering Canadian researchers on both national and international levels, to reach this goal for a cure, and to improve the lives of those already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

With so many initiatives under way, but so little real world advances in Alzheimer’s medicine, it’s impossible to tell what the future holds for Canadians susceptible to dementia and cognitive decline. But 2015′s advancements certainly have us heading in the right direction.