Alzheimer’s disease has long been seen as a sad inevitability for the unfortunate few fated to suffer it. This mindset has made people reluctant to get tested for early signs or screened for genetic indicators of vulnerability—when there’s nothing to be done, finding out early only means a longer period of worrying. Now, however, new preventative treatments are making early diagnosis and accurate risk assessment more important and more useful than ever before. Treatments aimed at boosting levels of important proteins that regulate memory can help prepare the brain for the ravages of dementia and neurodegeneration.
This is one of a number of advances in diagnosing, preventing, and treating Alzheimer’s disease in recent years. The best chance to stop or reverse damage is early on, meaning diagnostic tests that can be used before obvious symptoms have begun to appear are especially valuable. Researchers in Florida have devised a test to look for impairment in the sense of smell, a subtle and often overlooked frequent initial sign of Alzheimer’s. Peanut butter proved to be a good and easily obtained material with which to test olfactory acuity; when cognitive decline starts to rob the patient of ability to smell things, peanut butter is one of the scents most affected. Patients who have an easier time smelling peanut butter in the right nostril are more likely to be on the road to Alzheimer’s.
Arteriosclerosis—hardening of the arteries—is also a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, and blood pressure drugs, correspondingly, lower the risk. There is a connection between the plaques in the brain that cause the disruption of memory and cognitive function characteristic of Alzheimer’s and the plaques that form in the arteries; medications that address the arterial hardening also help prevent plaque formation in the brain.
Other risk factors for Alzheimer’s include head trauma and mild cognitive impairment. People who are at risk should be particularly assiduous about monitoring and preventative measures. In addition to lowering blood pressure, that means staying fit, eating fruits and vegetables, getting enough exercise, and not smoking. Diabetes is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s as well, but this can be mitigated if it is properly managed. Social interaction—getting out and doing things with friends—can also stave off cognitive decline.