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Age-old age myth: Alzheimer’s not inevitable with age, expert says

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WASHINGTON – Alzheimer’s disease is expected to continue growing at an alarming pace as the population ages, with some experts predicting an increase of more than 60 percent over the next 10 years in Arizona alone.

But Carol Barnes has some reassuring news: Alzheimer’s is not an inevitable part of getting older.

“Fifty years ago, the prevailing view of old age was that if you live long enough you will eventually get a dementing disease,” said Barnes, a University of Arizona gerontology professor, in a recent briefing for a congressional caucus. “But today we know that not all of us is going to get Alzheimer’s.”

Barnes’ decades of research on the aging process and its effects on the brain earned her an invitation from the Coalition of Life Sciences to speak last week at a Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus briefing.

Coalition Director Lynn Marquis said her group chose Barnes because she stood out from scientists across the nation for her “cutting-edge” work and the various advancements she has made within the science field.

“She is really a stand-up scientist,” Marquis said. “She is doing such incredible stuff and Arizona should be proud.”

At the briefing, Barnes pointed to key lifestyle factors that can “ensure a successful mental life span” – everything from exercise, good diet, social interactions and reducing stress, to simply wearing a helmet when riding a bike to reduce chances of brain inflammation.

Barnes said that staying healthy up until death is possible. The idea that old age equals senility is a myth, she said.

“My message is that there are so many of us living that are aging normally,” Barnes said.

But the rapid growth of Alzheimer’s in the aging U.S. population is clear. In the Alzheimer’s Association annual report earlier this year, researchers analyzed the trajectory of the disease’s prevalence over time. For Arizona, the report predicted a 67 percent increase in the number of people aged 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s by 2025.

Dan Lawler, development director at the Alzheimer’s Association Desert Southwest Chapter, said the increase can be explained by the state’s demographics.

“It’s a retiree state,” Lawler said. “People that are older are more likely to live here.”

Alzheimer’s disease is the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S. among adults aged 65 to 85. Age is the leading risk factor for the disease – the likelihood of getting it increases as people get older.

Barnes said the effects of aging alone on the brain do not guarantee that someone will succumb to the disease. At the briefing, she explained how the brain has the ability to actively adapt – even through biological changes over time.

“Your brain is remarkably adaptable throughout your life,” she said. “There are things you can do to maintain brain health.”

Barnes said she sees the progress that has been made over the years in the field of neuroscience and the work done by scientists to help understand the brain better and improve quality of life.

Lawler agreed that, as with other diseases, there are preventive measures people can take – but there’s only so much that can be done.

“With Alzheimer’s the sad fact is you could be the model person and do everything right and still develop the disease,” he said. “Like other diseases – heart disease, cancer – there are things you can do to lower your risk but there is nothing, no magic bullet or mixture of things you can do.”

But Barnes said people can do things for themselves that can help prevent severe memory loss later on in life.

“Naturally, each of us has to set our own goals for successful aging,” she said. “One thing is clear – to continue to enjoy the Sonoran Desert as I do, I am going to need to keep my brain healthy.”