Scientific Studies of Alzheimer's Disease

By Jerilyn WatsonThis is Bob Doughty.And this is Sarah Long with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today we tell about scientific studies of Alzheimer's Disease, a brain disorder.

Each year, Alzheimer's Disease affects millions of people throughout the world. It destroys their ability to think and remember. In the United States alone, an estimated one in ten people over the age of sixty-five suffers from this terrible sickness.

Doctors say Alzheimer's Disease is a slowly increasing brain disorder. It robs people of skills they need for normal life. It affects personal qualities that make us who we are. Alzheimer's patients suffer from dementia, a loss of knowledge and recognition skills. Some patients also have severe emotional problems. Other conditions also can result in dementia. But Alzheimer's is the most common cause.Alzheimer's commonly affects people over sixty-five years old. But the disease also can begin when a person is much younger. Its early signs may be similar to other conditions. These include the effects of normal aging. For example, people with early Alzheimer's may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. They may have trouble sleeping. They may forget where they put things, like their keys. But these problems affect millions of people who do not have Alzheimer's.

Later, however, Alzheimer's patients have trouble expressing their thoughts. They may become restless and angry. Some even get violent. They may get lost in their own communities. In time they can no longer care for their physical needs. This process can take five years. Or it can take more than twenty years.Alzheimer's can end a person's life. But patients usually die from something else, like infections or strokes. Several medicines appear to help some signs of the disease. But Alzheimer's Disease has no cure.

However, recent research has helped doctors understand the disease better. And scientists have learned hopeful information about older people. Researchers have shown that people's memories and intelligence can remain good in old age.

Most scientists blame physical causes for Alzheimer's Disease. They say abnormal cells in the brain are responsible. They are trying to discover why the cells become abnormal. But scientists also are investigating other possible causes for the disease.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))In Sweden, for example, Laura Fratiglioni has investigated possible social causes of dementia. She works for the Karolinska Institute and the Stockholm Gerontology Research Center. Doctor Fratiglioni led a team studying older people to find changes in knowledge and recognition skills. The researchers examined the personal lives and mental skills of the older people. Their research showed that poor or limited social relationships increase the risk of dementia by sixty percent.

The scientists studied more than one-thousand old people for an average of three years. All the people had good mental powers at the beginning of the study. Repeated tests showed that women over the age of eighty had the highest risk of failing memory and intelligence.

Doctor Fratiglioni believes this may be because women usually live longer than men do. And, men often marry younger women. So, old men usually live with another person longer than women do. But she said the risk is not necessarily living alone. Instead, it is being alone.Doctor Fratiglioni described being alone as lacking satisfying personal connections with others. These relationships could be with children or friends. Or, they could be with religious groups or other organizations. The study showed the quality of these relationships was more important than how often the older people communicated with other people.

The study also found that poor relationships with their children could threaten the mental health of older people. Parents who had difficult relationships with their children suffered more dementia than people who had no children. Doctor Fratiglioni says her study shows that strong, satisfying social relationships may protect against mental losses. But she does not know why this may be true.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))The National Institutes of Health near Washington, D-C supports continuing research about Alzheimer's Disease. For example, the N-I-H is supporting an Alzheimer's study among religious workers who live together. About nine-hundred Catholic nuns, priests and monks from nine states are taking part.

An Alzheimer's Disease research center in Chicago, Illinois has announced early results of this study. David Bennett of the Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke's Medical Center directs the study.The researchers are giving intelligence and memory tests to the nuns, priests and monks repeatedly from age sixty-five until they die. Two-thirds of these people continue to do well on the tests. Doctor Bennett says the scientists are discovering that even people eighty years old do well on the tests. Some even improve as they get older.

The researchers study the brains of the religious workers after they die. Doctor Bennett and his team were surprised to learn that some of the people had excellent memory even though they had abnormal brain cells. The scientists believe there may be something about the way the religious workers live that helps them overcome changes in the brain. They think that being happy and peaceful may be part of the answer.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))A research team in Cleveland, Ohio says some activities in early life seem to help prevent loss of mental abilities. Scientists at Case Western Reserve University Medical School studied more than five-hundred old people. Almost two-hundred of them already had Alzheimer's Disease. The study found that people who were less active in early life were about three times more likely to develop Alzheimer's Disease than people who were more active.

The researchers asked the people what activities they took part in between the ages of twenty and sixty. Then the researchers listed the activities in three groups. One group included watching television, listening to music and talking on the telephone. Another group included more difficult activities like making objects with wood, playing musical instruments and similar activities. And a third group included physical activities like sports and walking.Chief researcher Robert Friedland says people who took part in most of these activities had a lower risk for Alzheimer's Disease. Doctor Friedland says the most important activities are those that involve learning and memory. However, the people who had Alzheimer's Disease had watched more television than the others. Doctor Friedland says he suspects that watching television does not involve as much learning as other activities.

He says the study results could mean that inactivity helps cause Alzheimer's. But he also says it could mean that people with early effects of the disease might be less active. Doctor Friedland and other scientists note the possibility that older people may lose friendships because they are losing intelligence. Or people may be losing intelligence and withdraw from relationships at the same time.Zaven Khachaturian (CATCH-uh-TOUR-ee-un) is an expert on Alzheimer's Disease. He is the top medical advisor to the Alzheimer's Association in Chicago, Illinois. The association works to improve the lives of victims of the disease and their families.

Doctor Khachaturian says keeping the brain active may delay the beginning of the disease. But he says there is no evidence that it will change the progress of Alzheimer's Disease once a person has it.

Still, many older people like to think they can help protect their intelligence and memory. A very active eighty-six-year woman said, "Maybe I cannot prevent Alzheimer's. But keeping active makes me feel happier and more alive."

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by George Grow. This is Bob Doughty.And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.