Drugs that are prescribed for Alzheimer’s offer patients little respite from the disease, but scientists have now found evidence that suggests non-drug methods could help provide some benefits for patients who are genetically more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
A gene variant called ApoE4 increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease, though scientists aren’t quite sure how. Carrying one copy of ApoE4, like 25 percent of the population, increases risk by two to three times. Carrying two copies, like 2 percent of the population, increases risk up to 12 times. Around 60 percent of people with two copies of the gene will develop Alzheimer’s by 85.
In this study, scientists looked at whether non-drug methods—like exercise, diet and social activity—might be able to help people with Alzheimer’s disease who also have at least one copy of ApoE4. This kind of activity has been studied before in the general population, but studies on the genetically predisposed community have been inconclusive.
The scientists analyzed data from the FINGER study, a Finnish research project that studied how interventions like brain training, a diet that relies on fish and lots of vegetables, and exercise affects cognitive decline. Because people with ApoE4 are already more likely to develop dementia, some scientists believe that a poor diet and lack of exercise has a bigger impact on their likelihood of progressing to Alzheimer’s. The researchers were hoping that lifestyle interventions had the same protective effect they seem to have on the general population.
They found that the interventions did not produce significantly different results when participants were sorted by their ApoE4 variant, suggesting that changes in lifestyle could be equally effective, regardless of genetics. In the future, scientists hope to study whether these changes could be more beneficial to those carrying one or two copies of ApoE4.
“Whether such benefits are more pronounced in ApoE4 carriers compared with noncarriers should be further investigated,” they wrote in the study. “Further studies are needed to clarify whether ApoE4 carriers may benefit more from lifestyle interventions.”
The data was based on the two-year FINGER study, but the study extends for seven years total. When scientists have that data, they’ll be able to more conclusively say if diet, exercise and brain training initiatives have more of an impact on ApoE4 carriers.
This study was published in JAMA Neurology.