Teen years may predict risk of Alzheimers

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Building better brains during adolescence may help prevent the devastating symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease later in life. A UW researcher is currently looking at the link between high school grades and the complexity of essays written in early adulthood to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in later life. “We know that early brain development is most important part in an individual’s life”, said Applied Health Sciences associate professor Suzanne Tyas.

Potentially, this could lead to development of strategies to build “cognitive resilience” to reduce the impact of Alzheimer’s disease, which destroys brain cells. The research is a great stepping stone to changing the way we currently approach education during formative years and provide tactics for slowing the progression of dementia in high-risk individuals. Since there’s no cure and treatment is not effective for everyone, “prevention of symptoms progression is ultimately the key,” Tyas said.

While most studies generally focus on gathering information from later life after a person is diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, Tyas is working with the Nun Study — an extensive archive of data from early life to the death of an individual. “It’s really unique in having this span of information,” Tyas said.

Nearly 700 American nuns were included in the longitudinal study on Alzheimer’s disease, which included regular cognitive function tests, autopsy and access to convent archives including high school grades and autobiographical essays. The nuns’ stable lives and similar environments also help  rule out external variables for researchers.

Although some of the women displayed no symptoms of dementia while alive, they had brains that showed typical damage of Alzheimer’s in autopsies.

“There are some people who seem to resist the impact of those changes,” Tyas said.

It’s a rare opportunity for researchers, who normally wouldn’t be aware of people who had the physical signs of Alzheimer’s damage in their brain, but no symptoms. “We have more control over Alzheimer’s disease now than we actually think,” said Tyas, who hopes the study’s results will be finalized and published next year.

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