Focusing on Alzheimer’s disease prevention

By Carolyn Ali

Haakon Nygaard from Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at UBC

Delaying the emergence of memory impairments by even a few years could have a major impact

Most people know that exercise and healthy eating habits can help prevent ailments like heart disease and stroke. But did you know that lowering your blood pressure can help prevent mild cognitive impairment, which is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease? Exercise can also improve cognitive function in people with dementia.

That’s according to Dr. Haakon Nygaard, a Fipke Professor in Alzheimer’s Research and director of UBC’s Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders. Nygaard is working towards a cure for Alzheimer’s, but he’s also tackling the challenge from another angle: prevention.

“Researchers over the past 10 years have been very successful in preventing heart disease and strokes,” says Dr. Nygaard. “It’s time to do the same for Alzheimer’s disease.”

UBC spoke with Nygaard to learn more.

What new ways can we find to treat the effects of Alzheimer’s?

While we continue to search for effective therapies to treat Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, there is also a major worldwide focus on prevention. A delay in the emergence of memory impairments or other cognitive symptoms by only a few years would have a major impact on an individual and socio-economic level. Indeed, postponing the onset of dementia by as little as one year could potentially save Canada’s healthcare system $109 billion over 30 years.

With colleagues across the country, we are working on a large-scale dementia prevention strategy in Canada. Groundbreaking findings on the effects of exercise, diet and other lifestyle interventions have already been conducted at UBC and elsewhere. Our goal is to integrate and test these interventions on a large-scale to eventually formalize advice on what someone in midlife should do to prevent or delay dementia.

By 2031, an estimated one in four Canadians will be aged 65 or older. The risk of being diagnosed with dementia roughly doubles every five years after age 65.


What is your vision for a different future regarding Alzheimer’s?

I see two major streams of research over the foreseeable future as we try to tackle Alzheimer’s and other dementias: drug development and prevention.

The former involves scientists across the world assessing new models of disease and harnessing the power of big data to discover new targets that may one day become effective therapies.

Prevention involves public awareness and rigorous testing of prevention strategies. I remain optimistic that we can implement strategies to slow the progression or even prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia over the next decade.

You mentioned there have been some disappointments in developing effective treatments for people who already have symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

What motivates you to keep working for a cure?

As a clinician, I see the hardship that Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia bring to patients and their families. We still do not have a therapy that reverses or halts the disease’s progression, and this remains a huge challenge, first and foremost for patients and families, but also for the clinician.

Finding new therapies to truly impact our patients’ quality of life remains an incredible incentive that drives innovation, not only in my own work, but also for colleagues at UBC and around the world.

“With research, a single discovery can change the world.”

1.1 million Canadians are affected directly or indirectly by Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s society of canada

What is the focus of your current research?

As a clinician-scientist, my work spans laboratory experiments to clinical studies of patients with dementia. In my laboratory, we are taking advantage of an extraordinary methodology that allows us to convert a person’s blood cells into brain cells. This way, we can study basic elements of brain function directly related to patients with a disease of interest, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Through this technology, we are searching for new pathways that might cause the progressive loss of brain cells in dementia. We hope that some of these pathways can lead to new and more effective drugs.

Clinically, we are working on a number of projects — ranging from ambulatory sleep monitoring to genetic testing and advanced brain imaging — to better identify those at risk for developing dementia. We are also looking at a ketogenic supplement in established Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia. My colleagues at UBC are also conducting a number of clinical trials of new and promising drugs for dementia.

“With research, a single discovery can change the world.”

Dr. Haakon Nygaard, UBC Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders

Dementia research is very much a collaborative enterprise, both locally and globally. A very skilled and dedicated group at UBC has been doing important research in dementia for decades and I am fortunate to be part of this environment.

UBC also has incredible depth and diversity, exemplified by more recent collaborations between dementia researchers and the School of Biomedical Engineering, the Division of Hematology and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology — to name a few. This depth greatly increases our chances of novel, breakthrough discoveries and it’s only possible at institutions such as UBC.

It’s important to reflect on the fact that with research, a single discovery can change the world. It could be next year we see something no one has seen before that leads to an effective therapy. As long as we have people working on it, any one of us can make that groundbreaking discovery.

Originally published September 2019

UBC’s Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders provides assessment and diagnosis, and offers resources and support to patients and their caregivers.

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Carolyn Ali is a writer for UBC’s Brand and Marketing.
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