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5 Takeaways from the 2020 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference®

5 Takeaways from the 2020 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference®
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July 31, 2020
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This week, more than 33,000 registered attendees from over 160 countries joined together virtually for the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) — the world’s largest and most influential international meeting dedicated to advancing dementia science. 

In this exciting time in Alzheimer's and dementia research, scientists continue the momentum necessary to advance new discoveries, even in the face of a global pandemic. As AAIC 2020 comes to a close, here are just five of the many key takeaways from the conference, as the research community continues to seek treatments, earlier detection and prevention strategies for Alzheimer’s and all other dementia.

Research Suggests Common Vaccines Tied to Lower Risk

It’s the word on the tip of everyone’s tongues: vaccines.

The latest research out of AAIC 2020 suggests flu and pneumonia vaccination — especially multiple vaccinations over time — may be associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s dementia later in life:
  • One study found at least one flu vaccination was associated with a 17% reduction in Alzheimer’s incidence, with a more frequent flu vaccination associated with another 13% reduction. 
  • Another study found vaccination against pneumonia between ages 65 and 75 reduced Alzheimer’s risk by up to 40%, depending on an individual's genes. 
  • A third study found that people with dementia have a significantly higher risk of dying after viral, bacterial, and other infections than those without dementia.
It is too early to tell if getting vaccinated for flu or pneumonia on its own impacts the risk of Alzheimer’s. It’s possible that people who are getting vaccinated also take care of their health in other ways, and these things add up to lower risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The more we understand about what reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, the closer we get to our ultimate goal of effective treatment, prevention and, ultimately, a cure. 

A Blood Test for Alzheimer’s On the Horizon

Scientists are making great strides toward developing better tests to detect Alzheimer’s. This includes advances in blood tests. Here is why it’s significant: A simple and accessible test for blood biomarkers may allow for a greater understanding of Alzheimer’s in diverse populations, potentially identifying the right people for specific clinical trials. It would also allow researchers to better track the potential therapies being tested, which could help support new drug developments and more treatment options.

Last year, AAIC 2019 highlighted blood biomarkers for beta amyloid, a hallmark protein of Alzheimer’s that comprises the brain “plaques”. Research reported at AAIC 2020 focuses on another protein known as tau — specifically, a form of tau known as p-tau217. Levels of this type of tau in blood may be the most accurate, most specific to Alzheimer’s and the earliest way of showing measurable changes to the brain. 

These new reports are very encouraging, although they need to be verified in larger and more diverse populations. Researchers continue to zero in on tau proteins in the brain and their potential in Alzheimer’s and dementia research overall.

Early Life Risk Factors Matter

The more we study Alzheimer’s, the more evidence emerges that there are factors across the entire life-span that may contribute to a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementia over time. New research out of AAIC 2020 suggests some risk factors may be present and measurable early in life, as early as our teens and 20s.

In a study group including more than 700 African Americans, researchers found that having diabetes, high blood pressure or two or more heart health risk factors in adolescence or young adulthood was associated with significantly worse late-life cognition. This is incredibly important, as African Americans typically have a higher risk of heart health risk factors compared to other racial/ethnic groups. The research suggests that efforts to promote behaviors that benefit heart health — and maybe cognition — should also include younger people who may be especially susceptible to the impact of poor vascular health on the brain. 

Researchers also say that higher body mass index (BMI) in early adulthood was associated with higher late-life dementia risk, and another study reported at AAIC 2020 looked at the influence of the quality of education on late-life cognition. 

One thing is certain: Findings at AAIC 2020 show that it's never too early — or too late — to take action to protect your brain.

How Alzheimer’s Affects Hispanic/Latino Populations Differently

Dementia is an under-recognized public health crisis in Hispanic/Latin American communities in the United States. Hispanics are about 1.5 times more likely to develop dementia than non-Hispanic whites. 

The Study of Latinos-Investigation of Neurocognitive Aging (SOL-INCA), a large and innovative study of major Latin American groups, is aiming to better understand why. Results from SOL-INCA suggest that modifying some known risk factors (such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease) in Latin American populations may promote successful cognitive aging and reduce the risk of cognitive impairment.

Researchers also reported that APOEe4, the gene with the strongest impact on Alzheimer’s risk for white, European-descended populations, appears to have a significantly weaker effect in some Latin American populations. This suggests that if someone has one or two copies of APOEe4, it may not mean the same for Alzheimer’s risk across racial/ethnic groups. 

More research is needed to provide actionable ways to reduce risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia, especially in Latin Americans who are disproportionately affected.

New Research Study to Focus on COVID-19 and the Brain

Announced at AAIC 2020, the Alzheimer’s Association will be conducting a new research study to globally track and understand the long-term impact of exposure to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) on the brain, including cognition, behavior and function.

During the conference, a robust discussion was held, which included experts from the Alzheimer’s Association, University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Rush University Medical Center and University of Texas Health San Antonio.

Scientists from more than 30 countries are looking to participate in this study, and the World Health Organization (WHO) will provide technical assistance as we move this important collaboration forward. We will align with existing studies — such as the Framingham Heart Study — and clinicians from around the world in order to determine how the data is collected and measured. 

Although dementia most likely does not increase the risk of contracting COVID-19, dementia-related behaviors, difficulty following safety protocols, increased age and common health conditions that often accompany dementia may increase risk. 

As the pandemic continues to create additional challenges for people living with Alzheimer's and all dementia, their families and caregivers, especially in long-term care settings where some estimates indicate that more than 59,000 residents and workers have died from the coronavirus, the Alzheimer's Association is urging state and federal policymakers to implement new policy solutions that will address the immediate and long-term issues impacting care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We continue our momentum in moving research forward, and look forward to the potential of results from this study being presented at AAIC 2021.

As this year’s Alzheimer's Association International Conference comes to a close, we are filled with hope as we continue to work toward a world without Alzheimer’s and all other dementia.

As the largest, private, non-profit funder of Alzheimer’s and dementia research, the Alzheimer’s Association leads, convenes and accelerates research in order to create a world without Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
What research from AAIC 2020 are you most interested to learn more about?

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