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Research: LOL

Alzheimer’s is not a bundle of laughs. But it isn’t without humour, most of which, in my view comes from the wacky (straw-clutching?) suggestions made by research projects and the journalists who report on them. It’s comic relief in disguise.

On 17 January The Daily Telegraph, for example, ran a short piece headed “Housework may protect elderly against dementia”. There, I knew it. I should have made My Loved One, when he was well, work far harder at vacuuming, mopping and scrubbing. Why did I waste all that money employing cleaners? When I’d stopped giggling and actually read the piece I learned that this was a twenty year US study which found that physical activity – even housework – can, for some people, keep Ms Alzheimer’s at bay. Not the same thing at all. It’s hardly an original observation either.

The Times (18 January) reported the same research with a different spin. What you mustn’t do, apparently, is to allow yourself to get frail. “Ageing badly” (whatever that means) makes people more susceptible to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Researchers measured their studied individuals against a “frailty index” (who knew?) and then brain scanned them when they were dead which is a bit, err, final.

Frailty thy name is dementia? I have to say that MLO is now frail by any standards but I’m not at all sure what he or I was supposed to do to prevent that. He was always active, ate healthily, drank only modestly and has never smoked.

Earlier this month a study in Rio de Janeiro was published. It identified a hormone produced by exercise which can, it seems, benefit mice with neuro-degenerative disease. Its production is linked to a gene which can be faulty. Having genetically engineered their hapless rodents to be susceptible to Alzheimer’s (which The Times cheerfully informs us leads to “brain atrophy and memory loss leading to dementia, disability and death”) by suppressing said gene, they then restored it – and bingo. Of course this sort of thing is never going to benefit MLO and it will be a long time, I presume, before it might help anyone else. It’s a lengthy road from mice to people. But it supports my contention that there’s an entertaining Alzheimer’s research story almost every day.

Meanwhile a Chinese research group has identified a gene variant that plays a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s in Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China. Apparently, until now, none of the genes linked with Alzheimer’s in European populations could be “validated” in Chinese equivalents. Golly, what a lot you learn when you get involved with this horrible illness.

Only this week, British research has suggested that blood tests – snappily known as “serum neurofilament dynamics” – can now spot Alzheimer’s etc up to ten years before symptoms arrive but only, at present, in those tragic “early onset”  cases where the disease kicks in, say, during the patient’s thirties or forties, I struggle to understand why it’s an advantage to know that, yes, you’re going to get a neuro-degenerative disease years before you do so since every medic or support worker you speak to stresses bluntly that “there is no cure”. It isn’t like cancer when early diagnosis can often get the thing zapped before it spreads.  But I suppose they know what they’re doing.

One day, maybe, there will be a real breakthrough although realistically it’s more likely that lots of different studies and approaches will come together to chip away at the illness and gradually reduce its effects. Miracle cures are (usually) the stuff of science fiction.

And it’s anyway far too late for any of it to make any difference to MLO who’s firmly on a downward trajectory whichever way you look at it. So, thanks research guys. Anything which makes me chortle – however ironically and hollowly –  helps in a tiny, unintended way. Laughter, best medicine and all that.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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