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Two recently published research studies are generating buzz for new discoveries about Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. It’s easy to understand why. The need for fresh treatments is great. According to an Alzheimer’s Disease International 2016 report, more than 47 million people worldwide are affected by the condition.

In Canada, 564,00 people are living with dementia. By 2031, close to a million Canadians will have the disease. Dementia is not a natural part of aging, but age is still the biggest risk factor. Although it can occur in people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, after age 65, the risk of developing the condition doubles every five years. To date, they are no treatments or drugs that can prevent dementia, but there are medications available to manage symptoms.

There is a lot of excitement about a study from UT Southwestern that points to the anti-rejection drugs normally used for organ transplant patients, as a possible way to slow the progression of early-stage Alzheimer’s. Researchers zeroed in on the synapses, which are the junctions between neurons that help relay information to the brain. In those with Alzheimer’s, the messages aren’t passed along efficiently because of an over-production of beta-amyloid, which, in turn, activates a protein called calcineurin. It inhibits an important protein, Pin1, and causes misfiring of the synapses.

The scientists tested the affects of FK506, an anti-rejection drug that suppresses the immune system – a good thing in organ transplant patients. Their findings suggest that the medication can help protect the neurons from the negative impact of beta-amyloid. While the initial experiments were done with mice, the creators of the study are hoping to get approval to test their findings with human clinical trials.

Can ibuprofen prevent Alzheimer’s?

Meanwhile, a Vancouver-based research team found that a daily regime of non-prescription NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) ibuprofen can prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, if started early enough. Dr. Patrick McGeer, the celebrated neuroscientist who developed a simple saliva test (using as little as one teaspoon of the fluid) to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, led the team.

He suggests testing start at age 55 – 10 years before the prevalence of clinical Alzheimer’s appears at 65. Those with elevated Abeta 42 levels as detected in their saliva may be able to start taking ibuprofen to ward off the disease. NSAIDs are not effective when cognitive functioning is already mildly or severely manifested. Still, Dr. McGeer is heralding the discovery as a game changer.

Nalini Sen, director, Alzheimer’s Research Program, says there’s cause for hope for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. Photo courtesy of the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

While there may be cause for optimism, some Alzheimer’s researchers are more cautious. Nalini Sen, director, Alzheimer Society Research Program, feels that more work needs to be done. “The ibuprofen research is still in the early stages,” she says. “The evidence so far is not conclusive. It’s important to keep in mind that anti-inflammatories can cause other problems in the long run.” Though she says that it is exciting to hear this latest news, it’s always crucial for patients to consult their physicians.

She understands the desire to praise and act on the ibuprofen and organ-transplant drug studies. “People want a glimmer of hope, but it’s early days yet and more research is needed.”

On more solid ground is a growing body of research about the important of lifestyle factors for reducing the risk. “Half of Alzheimer’s cases can be reversed or prevented through modifying these factors,” says Sen. Good habits include: exercising more, eating a heart-healthy diet, maintaining good cardiovascular health, socialization and life-long learning. For more visit the site for the Alzheimer Society Canada.

The Alzheimer Society Research Program funds biomedical and quality of life researchers working across Canada. Since 1989, it has contributed more than $53 million for Canadian research that is focused not only on treatments and cures, but also on improving care and support for those living with dementia