Some 150 million people worldwide are expected to be affected by dementia by 2050. And while there are many ways people can change their behavior to lower their risk of heart disease and cancer–such as eating a healthy diet, exercising and avoiding or stopping smoking–there are few similar steps that have been scientifically proved to reduce the risk of degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s. Genes play a prominent role in determining who will develop the disease, and age is also a major factor–neither of which are under human control. That’s why Alzheimer’s experts have focused their attention on developing drug treatments for the disease.
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center sought people with hypertension to volunteer for a study called SPRINT MIND which was designed to test whether aggressively lowering blood pressure would have an effect on people’s risk of cognitive decline, including symptoms of dementia related to Alzheimer’s disease. So far the trial’s results are the first solid confirmation that lowering blood pressure reduces the risk of both mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a degree of brain decline that’s considered the gateway to dementia. The study provides the strongest evidence yet that there may be something in people’s control that lowers their risk of cognitive decline. The results of the trial, which was funded by various agencies in the National Institutes of Health, were presented at the annual meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago in July and immediately buoyed the hopes of Alzheimer’s experts.
The SPRINT MIND study involved more than 9,300 elderly people who had had heart problems or were at higher risk of developing heart disease–some because they had high blood pressure. They were randomly told to lower their blood pressure to either less than 120 mm Hg or 140 mm Hg systolic. (Current guidelines, revised in 2017 after the study began, now recommend that most people keep the upper number, or systolic pressure, under 130 mm Hg.) They were tested over an average of three years on various cognitive skills, including memory and processing of new information.
After an average of three years, people who lowered their blood pressure to less than 120 mm Hg lowered their risk of developing MCI or probable dementia as measured by the tests by 15%, compared with people who lowered their blood pressure to 140 mm Hg.
There are finally some promising drugs for Alzheimer’s that are now being tested. These could be the first to actually slow or even reverse the damage to brain nerves that cause memory loss, disorientation and other problems related to thinking skills. The latest studies on two drugs, BAN2401 and aducanumab, show they may shrink the amount of disease-causing protein plaques in the brain and could even slow the progression of cognitive decline.