Nuns could help discover new ways to treat brain diseases

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A study of the brains and the lifestyle of a group of nuns could could revolutionise how we treat dementia.

A study looking at the brains and lifestyle of a group of nuns could lead to a breakthrough in the treatment of diseases including dementia. The need for new treatments is becoming more urgent.

The number of people suffering from dementia diseases such as Alzheimer’s are expected to double across the United States and Europe over the next 20 years as the population ages.

Despite extensive research, the cause of these debilitating illnesses is still not known for certain.

Dementia is not one disease; it’s a generic term for several diseases that create an abnormal build-up of proteins in the brain, impairing how it functions. The build-up can damage nerve cells and cause some areas of the brain to shrink.

It’s thought that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by an increase in 2 proteins called amyloid and tau.

It’s still not known how amyloid and tau cause damage to brain cells and more research is being carried out.

One such study involves research into a group of nuns. It began more than 30 years ago could have a huge impact on how we treat dementia in the future.

Nuns monitored for 30 years for signs of dementia

US scientists first started studying nuns in 1986 as they looked for clues about the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The results were remarkable. Post-mortem examination results on the nuns’ brains showed that a third of them had lived with Alzheimer’s disease. However, when they had been alive, they had not shown any symptoms of the disease and had functioned normally.

Consultant psychiatrist Professor Brian Lawlor at Trinity College Dublin believes it could be because of the quality of life the nuns had because they lived in a developed country like the United States, and from having busy daily routines that involved lots of mental stimulation.

He said: “With the nuns, the belief is that those who have this more complex ability to express themselves in language – (maybe they had an innate ability and possibly it was down to education as well) – we believe we can build up a cognitive resource by exposing yourself to lots of things, social engagement, building up more plasticity in the brain.

“When you develop the pathology of dementia, you can compensate with a positive cognitive reserve – and build up a reserve through education, lifetime activity, and social engagement.

“In older age groups, the number of people developing dementia is falling off, and we feel that is linked to education and better heart health in the developed world.

“The idea that we may be able to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is a realistic goal. It’s about building up your cognitive reserve and plasticity in the brain.”

Factors such as depression, loneliness, isolation and hearing loss can all contribute to an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Doctors are hoping to learn more about the markers of a person who is developing dementia so they can recommend suitable lifestyle changes.

Professor Lawlor said: “The pathology of Alzheimer’s starts to build up in mid-life. We need to build up early markers that appear in mid-life before people develop Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’re finding that people at the age of 80 in the developed world – who have better control of blood pressure, lower cholesterol in mid-life, and also better education in earlier life – it protects them from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We may be able to stave off the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease; if you delay the onset by 5pc in a population, the numbers of people in the population is greatly reduced by about 40pc.”

“We have a study going on, and it’s linked in with the UK, called ‘Prevent Dementia’, and we’re looking at people between the ages of 40 and 59, some have a history, some don’t have a history of dementia, and it’s about trying to identify markers that will tell us of an increased risk of dementia years later.”

Professor Lawlor’s tips to help prevent dementia:

1. Get plenty of exercise:
2. A healthy Mediterranean-type diet
3. Try new things
4. Maintain an active social life
5. Minimise or avoid stress.
6. Make sure you are treated for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
7. Stimulation the brain by solving puzzles such as Sudoku

Although the causes of dementia are still being investigated, this research and several other studies suggest that even when a person has a disease like Alzheimer’s, they may not show any significant symptoms and may still be able to live a normal life, with the illness having very little impact on them.

The chances of avoiding the symptoms may be significantly increased by the lifestyles sufferers lead; with the people who fare best being the ones who eat well and exercise, look after their general health and get lots of mental stimulation that keeps their brains active.

Useful links

Starting to forget things…could it be the start of dementia

Starting to forget things doesn't necessarily mean you're developing dementia

Alzheimer’s Help and support

Living well with dementia

 

The Ultimate Brain HealthPuzzle Book for Adults by Phil Fraas

The Mindfulness Puzzle Book by Dr Gareth Moore

The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Beginners by Sarah Maurer

Pat Kehoe

Written by Pat Kehoe

Pat wrote this article. Pat has maintained a fit and healthy life well into his 60s by keeping active and eating a healthy balanced diet.