The Reality of a Vaccine to Protect Against Alzheimer’s

Margery recently went for a physical, and while she was there, she got vaccinated for pneumonia, shingles, and a tetanus shot. Similar to most people, she doesn’t like getting shots, but there is one she wouldn’t mind at all: a shot to protect her against Alzheimer’s!

Margery lost her mother, her grandmother, and two aunts on her father’s side from the debilitating disease. She knows she has a family history of it, so she does what she can to stave it off, including exercising, eating right, and challenging her brain by trying new things. With years of research though, she wonders, shouldn’t there be some sort of vaccine to protect people from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia?

How Alzheimer’s Destroys the Brain

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive memory disorder that affects nearly one in three seniors and is on the rise, currently affecting 43 million people worldwide. Behind the memory impairments, Alzheimer’s destroys the brain over time from accumulations of a protein called tau. Tau can accumulate in long tangles that disrupt the ability of neurons to communicate with one another. Recently, University of New Mexico researchers have developed a vaccine that could prevent the formation of the tau tangles and potentially prevent the cognitive decline typically seen in Alzheimer’s patients!

An Alzheimer’s Vaccine is in Progress

In a paper published last week in NPJ Vaccines, scientists at the University of Mexico reported that they have engineered a vaccine using virus-like particles (VLPs) that eliminated the tau tangles in mice that had been bred to develop symptoms similar to those affecting human Alzheimer’s patients.

Lead scientist, Nicole Maphis, and her team are excited by these findings, because they seem to suggest that “you can use the body’s own immune system to make antibodies against the tangles, and that these antibodies actually bind and clear the tau tangles.”

Maphis and other researchers in UNM’s Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology found that when the vaccine was given to mice, they developed antibodies that cleared the tau protein from their brains – and the response lasted for months. The scientists then tested the animals in a battery of maze-like tests. Mice receiving the vaccination performed remarkably better than those that hadn’t. MRI scans showed that the vaccinated animals had less brain shrinkage, suggesting that the vaccine prevented neurons from dying.

Scientists also found significantly fewer tangles in both the cortex and the hippocampus – areas in the brain that are important for learning and memory, and which are destroyed in Alzheimer’s. “These results confirm that targeting tau tangles using a vaccine intervention could rescue memory impairments and prevent neurons from dying,” Maphis said.

What’s the Status of the Vaccine?

Despite the positive results, Maphis and her team say this isn’t a complete success just yet. Being able to get the vaccine to people will not only take a few more years but can cost up to a billion dollars. The team has to make sure that they have a clinical version of the vaccine so that they can test in people. And, to test just a small group would cost the Health Sciences Department $2 million. Right now, UNM scientists are looking for partnerships to help them get their goal of getting a clinical grade vaccine. Once they develop a vaccine that’s safe for humans, they will have to submit it to the FDA for approval. That might take another five years.

Is Cost the Biggest Prohibitive Factor to an Alzheimer’s Vaccine or Drug?

Another promising way to stave off Alzheimer’s has recently been in the news, in the form of a rheumatoid arthritis drug, Enbrel. In fact, an analysis of hundreds of thousands of insurance claims suggested rheumatoid arthritis patients treated with Enbrel were 64% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than people who didn’t receive Enbrel. Pfizer chose not to pursue the study due to the cost of clinical trials, among other things. Learn more here.

The Alzheimer’s Association has invested $455 million on nearly 3,000 investigations over the past 37 years, yet no scientifically proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia has been found. Is the cost of trials what is holding researchers back from finding a cure or a way to prevent the disease? Let’s hope that this is not the case, since it seems we may be closer than ever before!

How Can You Protect Yourself from Alzheimer’s?

Although there are no scientifically proven ways to prevent Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, there are some ways you can protect yourself. At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, a Lancet-appointed panel created a model of dementia risks throughout life that estimates that about 35% of all cases of dementia are attributable to nine risk factors — risks that people potentially could change.

Their resulting recommendations: ensure good childhood education; avoid high blood pressure, obesity and smoking; manage diabetes, depression and age-related hearing loss; be physically active; and stay socially engaged in old age. The theory is that these factors together play a role in whether your brain is resilient enough to withstand years of silent damage that eventually leads to Alzheimer’s.

If you want to start small, make these changes:

  • Walking: Start at 10 minutes a day for two days a week and works up to longer walks on more days.
  • A diet that includes more leafy greens, vegetables, whole grains, fish and poultry than the typical American menu.
  • Certain brain “programs” that are challenging and keep the brain stimulated!
  • Outings that keep people social while they exercise their brains.
  • Improving control of medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes that are toxic to the brain, by improving your health.

Gary Small, MD, a director at the UCLA’s Longevity Center, has spent the past two decades researching the ways lifestyle choices affect memory. Read my article, “How to Stave Off Dementia” for some of the best advice and suggestions from Dr. Small and other reputable sources.

Planning for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s

Do you have a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia? Persons with Alzheimer’s disease and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from Alzheimer’s and their loved ones. Through the process of Life Care Planning and Medicaid Planning (also-called Medicaid asset protection planning), we help protect a family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. If your family is facing a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or any other type of dementia, please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a consultation:

Medicaid Planning Fairfax, VA: 703-691-1888
Medicaid Planning Fredericksburg, VA: 540-479-1435
Medicaid Planning Rockville, MD: 301-519-8041
Medicaid Planning Washington, DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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