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Hopeful new direction for Alzheimer’s research, from the February 2013 Harvard Women's Health Watch

None of the current treatments for Alzheimer's can stop the disease or slow the process that leads to its theft of memory and personality. A new direction in Alzheimer’s research, highlighted in the February 2013 issue of Harvard Women's Health Watch, may someday change that.

“For the past 20 or even 30 years we’ve been focused on treating the end stage of Alzheimer’s, and we must shift our paradigm to start thinking about prevention,” says Dr. Reisa Sperling, director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Dr. Sperling and other researchers are focusing on several approaches for early intervention, before Alzheimer's affects memory, thinking, and behavior. Three key areas include:

  • Beta-amyloid plaque. People with Alzheimer's disease have in their brains accumulations called plaques made up of the protein beta-amyloid. Because amyloid deposits appear in the brain a full decade before symptoms appear, researchers want to know if starting an amyloid-busting drug as soon as plaques appear can prevent the progression of Alzheimer's disease.
  • Tau. Another sign of Alzheimer’s disease is the appearance of protein tangles in the brain. These tangles are made up of a protein called tau. Like beta-amyloid plaques, tau tangles can destroy nerves and cause dementia. Researchers are investigating various ways to prevent tangles from forming.
  • Inflammation. The same processes that help protect against infection may be at work promoting Alzheimer’s. Inflammation can lead to nerve damage in the brain. Researchers are testing whether therapies aimed at reducing inflammation to see if they interrupt the Alzheimer’s disease process.

Until researchers identify effective ways to prevent Alzheimer’s, women (and men) can take charge of their memory and cognitive function by staying mentally and physically active. There is good evidence that exercising regularly—incorporating both aerobic activity and strength training—can help protect nerve cells. Social interaction is also helpful for protecting memory.

Read the full-length article: "New hope for Alzheimer’s"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Women's Health Watch

  • New hope for Alzheimer's
  • Ask the doctor: Do I need to worry about high triglycerides if I have normal cholesterol?
  • Sex and your heart
  • Common vision problems in women
  • Do you need to see your gynecologist every year?
  • In the journals: Other colon cancer tests may be good alternatives to repeat colonoscopy
  • In the journals: Digital tablets make reading easier
  • In the journals: Quit smoking and live longer
  • In the journals: Breast cancer drugs linked to heart failure in older women
  • Ask the doctor: What can I do about foot pain caused by Morton's neuroma?

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.