Published on: November 1, 2016
by Johanna Weidner for Waterloo Record:
Building better brains in youth may help prevent the devastating symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
A Waterloo researcher is looking at the link between high school grades and the complexity of essays written in early adulthood to the risk of Alzheimer’s decades later.
“We know that early brain development is important later in life,” said applied health sciences professor Suzanne Tyas at the University of Waterloo.
Potentially that could lead to strategies to build “cognitive resilience” to reduce the impact of Alzheimer’s disease, which destroys brain cells.
Because there’s no cure and treatment is not effective for everyone, “prevention is really key,” said Tyas, who is heading a research team with a three-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
While most studies look at information from later in life after a person is diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease, Tyas is working with the Nun Study that’s an extensive archive of data from early life to death.
“It’s really unique in having this span of information,” she said.
Nearly 700 American nuns were included in the longitudinal study on Alzheimer’s disease, which included regular cognitive function tests, autopsy and access to convent archives including high school grades and autobiographical essays. The nuns’ stable lives and similar environments also help rule out external variables for researchers.
While some of the women displayed no symptoms of dementia while alive, they had brains that showed damage typical of Alzheimer’s in autopsies.
“There are some people who seem to resist the impact of those changes,” Tyas said.
It’s a rare opportunity for researchers because normally they wouldn’t be aware of people who had the physical signs of Alzheimer’s damage in their brain, but no symptoms.
“We have more control over Alzheimer’s disease than we think,” said Tyas, who hopes the study’s results will be finalized and published next year.
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