The scene was a kind of science court. On trial was the question “Can anything — running on a treadmill, eating more spinach, learning Arabic — prevent Alzheimer’s disease or delay its progression?”
To try to answer that question, the National Institutes of Health sponsored the court, appointing a jury of 15 medical scientists with no vested interests in Alzheimer’s research. They would hear the evidence and reach a judgment on what the data showed.
For a day and a half last spring, researchers presented their cases, describing studies and explaining what they had hoped to show. The jury also heard from scientists from Duke University who had been commissioned to look at the body of evidence — hundreds of research papers — and weigh it. And the jury members had read the papers themselves, preparing for this day.
The studies included research on nearly everything proposed to prevent the disease: exercise, mental stimulation, healthy diet, social engagement, nutritional supplements, anti-inflammatory drugs or those that lower cholesterol or blood pressure, even the idea that people who marry or stay trim might be saved from dementia. And they included research on traits that might hasten Alzheimer’s onset, like not having much of an education or being a loner.
It is an issue that has taken on intense importance because scientists recently reported compelling evidence that two types of tests, PET scans of Alzheimer’s plaque in the brain and tests of spinal fluid, can find signs of the disease years before people have symptoms. That gives rise to the question: What, if anything, can people do to prevent it?
But the jury’s verdict was depressing and distressing. So far, nothing has been found to prevent or delay this devastating disease, which ceaselessly kills brain cells, eventually leaving people mute, incontinent, unable to feed themselves, unaware of who they are or who their family and friends are.