The Alzheimer’s Association is a worldwide voluntary health organization dedicated to Alzheimer’s care, support and research. They host the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) yearly, which is the largest meeting dedicated to advancing dementia science. Each year 6,000 experts in dementia, medicine and care from all over the world travel internationally for this conference to share research discoveries that’ll lead to methods of prevention and treatment and improvements in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. AAIC serves as a catalyst for generating new knowledge about dementia and fostering a vital, collegial research community. This year, due to the coronavirus, it was held virtually in July and early August (for free) and had over 31,000 people in attendance.
Not everyone has heard of this conference before, but there is a lot of new and exciting research that is presented. We thought we would give you the highlights.
Flu (influenza) and pneumonia vaccination after age 60, as well as lower early-life BMI, among other health factors, are associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
New research presented at the AAIC 2020 suggested that flu and pneumonia vaccination are associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. Two studies of older adults found that those who received either a flu or pneumonia vaccination were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Those who received the flu vaccine more regularly had an even lower risk. For pneumonia vaccination, the largest risk reduction was observed in people who do not carry one of the known genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s — a variant of the TOMM40 gene.
The reports provide some of the first large-scale studies investigating the relationship between vaccination and Alzheimer’s risk, highlighting the potential of vaccination as an accessible intervention and supporting further research into the biological mechanisms underlying the observed protective effects of vaccination.
Blood tests that measure abnormal versions of the tau protein may — if verified through further research — diagnose Alzheimer’s dementia without additional confirmation; that is, not requiring autopsy examination, or both an amyloid and tau positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
Several studies at the AAIC 2020 described advances in blood tests that may more easily and accurately detect Alzheimer’s disease with greater certainty, and distinguish it from other degenerative brain disorders. The studies focused on biological markers that detect abnormal versions of the tau protein in blood or plasma, including a specific form of tau known as p-tau217 that seems to be the most specific to Alzheimer’s. Abnormal tau forms the “tangles” that are a hallmark brain lesion in Alzheimer’s. These tau brain changes were also found to indicate amyloid plaque accumulation, which forms the other hallmark Alzheimer’s brain lesion.
In new data reported at AAIC, p-tau217 in blood distinguished persons who had plaques and tangles from those without Alzheimer’s brain changes with 89% accuracy, those with plaques and more extensive tangles with 98% accuracy, and the outcome of tau PET imaging with 93% accuracy. If the results are replicated and verified, this could be the first time that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia, with this blood test, would be considered confirmatory — that is, not requiring autopsy examination, or both an amyloid and tau PET scan.
Blood tests may offer a simpler and more accessible approach to improve diagnosis, monitor treatment and identify appropriate people for clinical trials. Families facing Alzheimer’s now and in the future would benefit greatly from a simple test that allows early detection. For example, it would allow important care and planning steps to take place early in the disease process.
Heart health risk factors — such as high blood pressure, diabetes and being overweight — as early as adolescence can influence late-life memory and cognition, especially in African Americans.
One study of more than 700 African Americans showed that high blood pressure and diabetes, or a combination of multiple heart health-related factors, are common in adolescence and are associated with worse late-life cognition.
A second study of more than 5,100 older adults suggests that higher body mass index in early adulthood (age 20-49) is associated with higher late-life dementia risk. For women, dementia risk was 1.8 times higher among those who were overweight in early adulthood, and 2.5 times higher among those who were obese.
Higher quality early-life education is associated with better language and memory performance and lower risk of late-life dementia. This association can differ between men and women and between Black and white individuals.
A study found that, in a diverse group of more than 2,400 people followed up to 21 years, higher quality early-life education was associated with better language and memory performance, and lower risk of late-life dementia.
At AAIC 2020, the Alzheimer’s Association announced the launch of a new international research study to globally track and understand the long-term impact of exposure to the novel coronavirus on the brain, including cognition, behavior and function.
Little is known about the long-term consequences of COVID-19 infection. There are several research studies to suggest that it is associated with neurological complications. The downstream impact of COVID-19 on the brain is not well understood. There are many unanswered questions regarding its effect on the cerebrovascular system (e.g., blood-brain barrier integrity), the brain’s immune response and more.
Scientists from more than 25 countries, with technical assistance from World Health Organisation, formed an international, multidisciplinary consortium to collect and evaluate the short- and long-term consequences of the viral infection on the central nervous system (CNS), as well as the differences across countries on the viral impact of COVID-19. This study aims to better understand the long-term consequences that may impact the brain, cognition and function — including underlying biology that may contribute to Alzheimer’s and other dementia.
This study will enroll two groups of individuals:
- People with confirmed cases of COVID-19 from hospitals that have been discharged. They will be evaluated for follow up evaluations at 6, 9 and 18 months.
- People who are enrolled in existing international research studies to add additional measures and markers of their underlying biology.
To build a strong foundation for this research, the Alzheimer’s Association are aligning with existing studies — such as the Framingham Heart Study — and clinicians from around the world on how the data is measured and collected.
We look forward to seeing the results, although it take a while.
If you would like to sign up for updates regarding next year’s AAIC conference, click here.