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Alzheimer's Researcher Rudi Tanzi Says We're Seeing The Light of Day

DEAR: Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center, a service of the National Institute on Aging.

Alzheimer’s disease is a leading cause of death and affects an estimated five and a half million Americans. Decades of research have greatly improved our understanding of how the disease develops, from plaques of a protein called amyloid beta, to tangles of another protein called tau, and finally to inflammation in the brain and the familiar symptoms of dementia.

Yet, despite all that’s been learned, there is no cure. There aren’t even effective treatments. And more drug trials were stopped this spring when they weren’t producing the hoped-for results.

Still, one leading Alzheimer’s researcher says he thinks we’re seeing the light. Dr. Rudi Tanzi, the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, notes that researchers are making fewer mistakes. In fact, they're discovering that prevention will be key.

"The plaque is like the match, the tangles, like the brushfires that spread. You can live with it. But once there's neuroinflammation, that's the forest fire. And that's self-feeding. As neurons die, you get more neuroinflammation. Neuroinflammation causes more cells to die. So, you get this vicious cycle," Tanzi said.

Targeting those plaques and tangles is paramount to stopping current and future generations from getting the disease. And for patients who are suffering right now, you need to stop neural inflammation.

While the mechanism to do those things is not fully studied yet, Dr. Tanzi noted that you can start reducing your risk now with diet, exercise, sleep, and even socializing. He uses the acronym SHIELD to explain:

S stands for Sleep. Get your seven to eight hours. You need that deep sleep in order to clean the brain out of the plaque and debris that causes the disease 10-20 years before symptoms. 

H stands for Handling stress. Practicing meditation and dealing with stress can reduce inflammation.

I is Interaction or you could say integration; not isolating yourself but staying actively engaged with other relationships. 

E is for Exercise. Exercise induces the birth of new nerve cells into part of the brain that's most affected in Alzheimer's disease. 

L stands for Learning new things. 

D is for Diet. Dr. Tanzi noted that the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be the best diet for the brain.


Web content created by Liz Lerner. 

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.