Alzheimer’s Disease

Brain disease deaths high in pro football players

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

How’s this for a mind-bender: Lou Gehrig may not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Instead, the disease that ended his life may have been chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This brain disease is caused by repeated concussions—Gehrig sustained at least four during his baseball career—or other head injuries. It can cause symptoms very similar to those of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. More evidence of a connection between CTE and ALS comes from a new study of almost 3,500 retired professional football players, all of whom had played for at least five years in the National Football League. Among the 334 who died during the course of the study, the risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS was nearly four times higher than expected. Players who manned a “speed” position (such as quarterbacks or receivers) had a risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS that was more than three times higher than those playing “non-speed” positions (such as linemen).

A sluggish, unsteady walk might signal memory problems

Stephanie Watson

Is there a spring in your step—or a wobble in your walk? The speed and stability of your stride could offer important clues about the state of your brain’s health. According to new research, an unsteady gait is one early warning sign that you might be headed for memory problems down the road. A group of studies reported last week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, Canada, revealed a strong link between walking ability and mental function. What’s behind this connection? Walking is a complex task that requires more than just moving the leg muscles. Walking requires scanning the environment for obstacles and safely navigating around them, all while talking and carrying out various other tasks. The studies found that walking rhythm was related to information processing speed; walking variations and speed were associated with executive function (the mental processes we use to plan and organize); and walking speed became significantly slower as mental decline grew more severe.

Early steps toward an Alzheimer’s vaccine

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Some encouraging Alzheimer’s news from Sweden: a vaccine called CAD106 appears to be safe and ramps up the body’s immune system against a protein likely involved in Alzheimer’s. The hope is that this vaccine will slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly even stop it. The vaccine is designed to activate the body’s immune system against beta amyloid, a protein fragment that forms deposits called amyloid plaques between nerve cells in the brain. Three-quarters of those who received CAD106 developed antibodies against beta amyloid protein. Virtually all of them—including those getting the placebo—reported one or more side effects, ranging from inflammation of the nose and throat to headache, muscle pain, and fatigue. None, though, developed meningoencephalitis, an inflammation of brain tissue that derailed work on an earlier version of the vaccine. The next step in the development of CAD106 is a larger clinical trial to confirm the vaccine’s safety and to see if it is effective at slowing the relentless progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Can computer games keep your brain fit?

Christine Junge
Christine Junge, Former Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Computer games are being touted as a way to keep the body fit. Can they do the same for your brain? Most experts say “Not so fast.” As described in Improving Memory: Understanding age-related memory loss, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, people who play these games might get better at the tasks they practice while playing, but the games don’t seem to improve users’ overall brain skills, such as attention, memory, use of language, and ability to navigate. To stretch and exercise your brain, choose an activity you enjoy—reading, playing cards, or doing crossword puzzles are some good examples. If you’re feeling ambitious, try learning to speak a new language or play a musical instrument. Most of these activities come at a much lower cost than brain-training programs, and you’ll probably find them to be a lot more enjoyable, too.

National plan aims to bolster fight against Alzheimer’s

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

By the year 2050, experts estimate that 16 million Americans will be living with this Alzheimer’s disease. In an effort to head off the explosion, President Obama has signed into law the National Alzheimer’s Project Act. This ambitious project aims to attack Alzheimer’s disease by improving early diagnosis, finding effective prevention and treatment strategies, providing better support for family caregivers, and more. A newly released draft of the project, which a panel of experts is reviewing this week, sets a 2025 deadline for achieving these and other goals. One big drawback—the act doesn’t provide concrete details about how to fund the research and implementation efforts needed to meet the goals.

Is it Alzheimer’s, or just a memory slip?

Annmarie Dadoly, Former Editor, Harvard Health

Everyone has moments of forgetfulness—misplaced keys, a forgotten errand, the name of that movie you want to recommend but can’t get off the tip of your tongue. A certain amount of forgetfulness seems to be a normal byproduct of aging. But how do you know is forgetfulness signals something more serious, like Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia? According to “A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease,” an updated Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, by exploring several questions you may be able to get a clearer sense of normal versus worrisome forgetfulness: Is my loved one worried about the memory loss? Is he or she getting lost in familiar territory? Are word-finding problems common? Is your loved one losing the ability to socialize, or interest in it?

The dangers of hospital delirium in older people

Carolyn Schatz
Carolyn Schatz, Former Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Many older people develop delirium when they are hospitalized. Delirium is a sudden change in mental status characterized by confusion, disorientation, altered states of consciousness (from hyperalert to unrousable), an inability to focus, and sometimes hallucinations. Hospital delirium is especially common among older people who’ve had surgeries such as hip replacement or heart surgery, or those who are in intensive care. Inflammation, infection, and medications can trigger hospital delirium as can potentially disorienting changes common to hospital stays, including sleep interruptions, unfamiliar surroundings, disruption of usual routines, separation from family and pets, and being without eyeglasses or dentures. Although delirium often recedes, it may have long-lasting aftereffects, including premature death and poorer outcomes, such as dementia and institutionalization.

Alzheimer’s disease in its later stages: Some advice for caregivers

Peter Wehrwein
Peter Wehrwein, Contributor, Harvard Health

Alzheimer’s disease is a “disease of behaviors” that can wear down family and loved ones. In a talk called “Dementia and Cognitive Decline (Aging Gracefully)” Barbara Moscowitz, coordinator of geriatric social work for the Geriatric Medicine Unit at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, offered helpful insights and tips into caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Moscowitz drew not only her 30 years of professional experience, but also on the personal experience of helping take care of her mother, who suffered from dementia the last several years of her life.

Football and concussions: Old school, new school, and a conversation with Jerry Kramer

Peter Wehrwein
Peter Wehrwein, Contributor, Harvard Health

Tomorrow night at 6:30 p.m., tens of millions of television sets will be turned on as Americans sit down and participate in that unofficial national holiday called “watching the Super Bowl.” For many, it’s an excuse to see funny ads and the half-time show and to eat (how many of those spanking new Dietary Guidelines will be broken?), drink, and socialize. But […]

Did Lou Gehrig have Lou Gehrig’s Disease?

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.
Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Many brain disorders are syndromes where root causes and the neurobiology are poorly understood. Two people can have similar illnesses, but have very different underlying causes.