Alzheimer’s Prevention - What You Need to Know

An Interview with Dr. Laurie Ryan, PhD Chief of the Dementias National Institute on Aging discusses Alzheimer's

Alzheimer’s Prevention - What You Need to Know

by David Borenstein MD, Medical Editor

It is sad to lose a family member or a close friend to a disease, and it may even be worse when you lose them when they’re still alive. They’re living, but their mind is gone: this is the reality of dementia. The toll it takes on the individual is devastat­ing, but it is also disheartening for the people who care for that person.

Alzheimer’s disease has the poten­tial to become an epidemic. We need to find ways to prevent this disease. Luckily, clinical trials are under way to find ways to stop this illness in its earliest phases. Here, Laurie Ryan, PhD, provides background about the disease and answers questions about Alzheimer’s disease risk, lifestyle factors, and clinical trials.

Q&A with Laurie Ryan, PhD

Chief of the Dementias of Aging Branch in the Division of Neuroscience

National Institute on Aging

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, which is a progressive loss of cognitive motor function that occurs as the brain—the central nervous system— deteriorates. Alzheimer’s disease predominantly affects adults over 65 years of age.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, and there are genetic, cardiovascu­lar, and many other risks factors that can put a person on the pathway to potentially developing the disease. Though we have come to understand a lot more about what those risk factors are, and we can pinpoint some of the changes that occur over a decade or more in the brain before the dementia starts, we don’t know absolutely what the cause is at this point. We have a much better under­standing now, but we don’t have a specific cause.

Can you provide an example of a current topic of research sponsored by the National Institute on Aging related to Alzheimer’s prevention?

One focus of current research is amyloid, which is a protein that builds up in the brain and causes plaques to develop. The develop­ment of these amyloid plaques is an early indication of Alzheimer’s—it builds up as much as a decade before dementia sets in. It has become a tar­get of prevention trials, to see if we can stop the buildup of this protein before it progresses to cause demen­tia. Prior research has shown us that targeting amyloid later in disease progression has not been effective in slowing Alzheimer’s, but current studies are aiming to discover if early intervention might be able to stop the buildup of the protein and slow progression. Several prevention trials are ongoing related to anti-am­yloid therapies.

The media often reports on re­search into how lifestyle factors may affect brain healthand Alzheimer’s, in particular. What do we know about the impact that lifestyle factors might have on the development of dementia?

The impact of lifestyle factors on brain health is an ongoing area of research; there have been observa­tional and animal studies related to the role these factors may play in prevention, and other, larger trials are also under way. Some of these results are encouraging. For instance, studies have shown that exercise and maintaining physical activity as we age is good for brain health; information is also emerging about the role that sleep plays in cognitive function; diet can also be a factor, as can remaining mentally active as we age. Although there is also some information available about the potential benefit of specific foods—caffeine and chocolate, for example—we don’t yet have enough information to know the extent of the impact. As with all lifestyle rec­ommendations, moderation is key; a healthy lifestyle is certainly a benefit in many ways.

What should we know about the role that clinical trials play in Alz­heimer’s research?

We cannot make these important discoveries into the causes and potential treatments without clinical trials, wherein volunteers—individu­als and families—commit to partici­pating in research studies. There are great resources to learn more about clinical trials, which offer oppor­tunities to contribute to research for both healthy people and those already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Two good places to learn more about clinical trials are the National Institute on Aging website (nia.nih. gov/alzheimers) and the Alzheimer’s Association website (

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There is no know prevention for Alzheimer's disease. Misleading title for the article. Yes, it would be great if lifestyle changes could prevent it. My mom has it. She ate healthy foods, did crossword puzzles every day, never smoked or used drugs or alcohol. I wonder if researchers have looked at how many patients have had past surgeries and were given morphine. I wonder if they have looked at Paxil and other psychiatric drugs that impact our brains. We are Guinea pigs for all these new drugs. What about that? My heart is breaking for my mom.


I read that losing your sense of taste and/or smell is a sign of early alzheimers. Is there any information on this?