For decades, scientists have tried—without success—to isolate a cure for Alzheimer’s dementia, an illness that affects 5.8 million Americans, based on a 2019 report from the Alzheimer’s Association.

A significant hurdle in the search for a cure is that no one knows the exact cause of this disease. The long-standing belief is that a buildup of amyloid protein in the brain tissue contributes to neuron “plaques and tangles.” Researchers understand these as “trademark” symptoms. However, recent discoveries also confirm that much earlier signs of Alzheimer’s can occur 20 years before the noticeable onset of memory loss and brain cell degeneration, points out an article in U.S. News and World Report.

This ambiguity surrounding the disease’s origin makes it a complicated issue to treat. Certain medications clear the amyloid deposits, but this does not prevent the illness from exacerbating over time. As a result, the medical community changed their recommendations from one kind of pharmaceutical to diversified treatment protocols. In this post, we summarize recent updates on research and what that means for those with Alzheimer’s and their families.

Reasons for the Expansion and Diversification of Alzheimer’s Treatment

“With more money—the government had a record of $2.4 billion to spend on Alzheimer’s research this year—the focus shifts to exploring multiple, novel ways of attacking a disease now considered too complex for a one-size-fits-all solution,” U.S. News elaborates.

Since the brain has its own specialized immune system, one approach is to decrease inflammation or infections in the brain, which, if allowed to fester, might play a role in Alzheimer’s development. A common denominator that scientists identified at the root of this inflammation is “how aggressively the brain’s immune system defends itself—and thus, how inflamed it becomes,” continues the U.S. News report.

“Inflammation is a normal part of the body’s response to illness and injury, one method of fighting infection or healing wounds. But when inflammation is too strong or doesn’t go away, it’s like a ‘friendly fire’ that harms cells […] Massachusetts General researchers found strikingly little inflammation surrounded the gunky buildup in resilient brains,” compared to brains affected by Alzheimer’s which were significantly inflamed.

So what kinds of infectious pathogens might lead to inflammation and the eventual onset of Alzheimer’s dementia? “It sounds weird, but the germ that causes gum disease and different strains of herpes viruses have been found in Alzheimer’s-affected brain tissue,” the article enumerates. In fact, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Cortexyme has launched a clinical trial on early-stage Alzheimer’s patients to determine the efficacy of a medication that attacks residue from gingivitis bacteria, which could have impaired their neuron health.

Another study from Taiwan in 2018 showed evidence that treating herpes earlier in life can minimize the later risk of dementia, and further research in the United States concluded that some forms of herpes impact how Alzheimer’s genes develop or accelerate.

What the Discoveries Mean for Alzheimer’s Patients and their Caregivers

In the 2019 “Prepare Us for a Cure” report distributed by UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, the two most urgent treatment outcomes for surveyed patients is to “improve and restore memory” and “stop the disease progression.”

The data then explores how diversification can address these goals as researchers continue their inquest for a cure. “This year, three new Mechanisms of Action—i.e., pathways to attach Alzheimer’s disease—have emerged in the pipeline: stem cell, antimicrobial and endocrine,” notes Prepare Us for a Cure.

“The future of a pharmacological cure for Alzheimer’s lies in a ‘cocktail’ approach—a combination of treatments that target a variety of mechanisms working together to treat and cure the disease.”

In the newest trial phases for Alzheimer’s treatment, “63 percent of them are disease-modifying therapies (DMTs), aimed at changing the course of [Alzheimer’s dementia] and improving outcomes rather than managing symptoms,” based on data published in Neurology Journal.

“About one-quarter of the drugs in development are being tested for their ability to enhance cognition, which can lead to improved memory, language, thinking and judgment; approximately 10 percent of the drugs are intended to decrease behavioral symptoms such as agitation, apathy and sleep disturbances.”

When to Consider Non-Drug Treatments 

Not all interventions for Alzheimer’s are medication-based. Patients, caregivers, doctors, and memory care facilities should also be aware of nondrug treatment protocols as effective adjuncts to a pharmaceutical regimen.

A 2016 study from the European Geriatric Medicine Society observed the impact of certain holistic techniques on patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s dementia, and the results were largely positive. The alternative treatments explored in this research include the following therapies: 

  • Music
  • Bright light 
  • Reminiscence 
  • Psychodynamic 
  • Spaced retrieval 
  • Cognitive stimulation therapies 

These modalities activate the sensory elements, (sight, touch, smell, taste, and sound), to stimulate mental recall, enhance brain function, manage symptoms of depression, and ease the performance of basic daily activities.

Success with alternative Alzheimer’s treatment depends on several factors, such as each patient’s resilience and compliance, access to therapeutic resources, the severity of the condition, and the amount of caregiver support. But when used in conjunction with the new pharmacological advances, and the help of physicians and families, these treatments can help those with Alzheimer’s to experience a higher quality of life.

Keeping Up-to-Date on Alzheimer’s Treatment Advances

At Vineyard Bluffton, our staff includes NCCDP certified dementia care managers and award-winning health professionals. Our Executive Director, Kaylynn Evans, collaborates on cutting-edge academic research on dementia. What’s more, we include several of the above-mentioned therapies in the activity calendar for our memory care community, The Arbor. 

If you or someone you love is touched by Alzheimer’s, it’s imperative to stay up-to-date on the latest research and advances in treatment. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to your nearest Vineyard community to see how we can help you on your journey.