Drugs won’t cure Alzheimer’s, but sleep just might

Despite promising results in earlier trials, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly just announced that the phase 3 trial of the drug solanezumab has failed. Patients taking the drug did not show any slowing of cognitive decline, compared to those on a placebo.

There’s no silver bullet

This latest news follows a string of failures in the search for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. A 2014 study looked at 413 clinical trials for drugs to treat Alzheimer’s between 2002 and 2012. Just one drug compound, out of a total of 244 was approved; a failure rate of 99.6%. The authors of the study concluded: ‘the number of compounds progressing to regulatory review is among the lowest found in any therapeutic area. The AD drug-development ecosystem requires support.’

Anyone who has witnessed the slow decline of a loved one holds out hope that pharmaceutical companies will develop a pill that can reverse the damage and bring back the memory of a husband or wife, parent or grandparent. Anyone with a pattern of Alzheimer’s in their family will be watching the news, hoping for an announcement that a drug has been developed that can reduce their risk of ever experiencing symptoms.

Lifestyle may hold the key

But the very nature of Alzheimer’s disease makes a pharmacological solution particularly elusive. It’s believed that the faulty proteins associated with the disease start to build up years, and even decades, before patients show any signs of memory loss. It’s difficult to treat a disease that’s already far advanced before people experience symptoms.

While we’re a long way from a pharmacological solution there’s another body of research which does hold hope. Scientists are discovering more and more about the role that lifestyle has to play in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

The science behind prevention

Arianna Huffington is challenging our long-hours culture where burnout is the norm. She is championing a focus on balance and wellbeing, as the route to health and happiness. I couldn’t agree with her more.

Balance is important for the body, but it turns out it’s also important for the mind.  Research shows that lifestyle can have a huge impact on your memory and your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Participants in the FINGER study based in Finland, which involved a range of lifestyle changes saw a 150% improvement in brain processing speed and an 83% improvement in executive functioning. Participants in the MIND diet study, which tested the impact of diet on memory health, saw a 53% reduction in their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Diet, exercise, sleep, reducing stress and cognitive training all have a role to play in cognitive health. In an international study that followed subjects for 35 years, scientists discovered that those who experienced frequent stress had a 65% greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease. And studies also show that people with lower sleep quality and fewer hours of sleep have more beta-amyloid plaques in their brains, the proteins that are closely associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Ariana’s spotlight on the importance of sleep and a healthy balance is good for the body and even better for the mind.

The science of hope

There are many exciting discoveries coming from scientists working in the field of prevention and yet most people feel powerless when it comes to protecting the health of their memory. The reason? The work happening on prevention isn’t getting the airtime it deserves. We’re so focussed on waiting for a pill to come along and cure all our problems that discoveries on prevention are getting sidelined.

But the great thing about prevention is that it’s low cost, easy to implement on a large scale, and has benefits for your body as well as your mind. Anyone can make the lifestyle changes scientists recommend to support their memory health.

As someone who has lost two grandparents to Alzheimer’s disease, the idea that a pill could stop cognitive decline in its tracks is very attractive. But the reality is we’re a long way from a pharmaceutical answer to the epidemic of memory loss currently facing Western society. However, there’s still a lot of hope when it comes to creating a world without Alzheimer’s disease, the answers just may not lie where we want to look for them.

Elli Kaplan
Elli Kaplan

Founder & CEO of Neurotrack — Elli Kaplan is on a mission to change the conversation around the diagnosis and prevention of cognitive decline.