Seven highlights from the world’s largest dementia research conference

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By Claire Bromley | Thursday 13 August 2020

Conferences drive forward discoveries and accelerate the sharing of knowledge across the globe.

This year, the world’s largest dementia research conference – the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) – went virtual. Here are our top seven highlights from the week!

More researchers went to AAIC than ever before

Conferences are a great place for scientists from across the world to get together and share their findings, discuss new ideas and create lasting collaborations. This year, AAIC was more accessible than ever as the conference went virtual and was free to attend.

With the possibility to log in from their home, this year over five times more people tuned in to the conference from over 160 countries. Connecting an incredible number of over 33,000 people will drive forward dementia research and bring us closer to life-changing treatments. It is so encouraging to see events like these keeping up the momentum, despite restrictions imposed by COVID-19.

Exploring the effect of COVID-19 on the brain

A new international research study was announced to look at the effect COVID-19 has on how our brains work and on our memory and thinking processes. This collaborative effort involving scientists from more than 25 countries will accelerate our understanding of the long-term impacts of COVID-19 infection.

There are many unanswered questions, and by working together dementia researchers will find answers sooner.

Can we really reduce dementia cases by 40%?

At the conference, researchers revealed new findings showing that if we eliminate 12 risk factors for dementia, the number of people living with the condition could reduce by 40%. This research followed on from a report published in 2017, and highlights three new factors that could be in our power to change either on an individual or policy level.

While sadly there will always be people who avoid all these risk factors and still develop the condition, changing our lifestyle can still help to stack the odds in our favour. Our blog on this research highlights the best ways to keep our brains healthy as we age.

Vaccinations could help reduce dementia cases

Dementia is caused by physical diseases in the brain and people living with dementia are more vulnerable to certain infections. As well as helping limit preventable infections, new research suggests  a possible link between a seasonal flu jab or pneumonia vaccine and a lower dementia risk.

It will be important to look into the reasons behind this link. One explanation could be that people who get vaccinated are more likely to take other steps to protect their health. Learning how we can reduce our risk is an important steppingstone in developing future preventions and treatments.

Promoting diversity in dementia research

Studies have shown that certain racial groups are more likely to develop dementia, for example African Americans are two times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than white people. At this year’s conference, scientists presented their findings having looked more into the reasons why this might be the case.

Researchers in the US highlighted that memory and thinking tests used to help diagnose people with dementia were developed using white research participants and may not meet the needs of other racial groups. They also emphasised that alongside traditional risk factors including BMI, education and genetics, the lived experience of people in different communities including their experience of discrimination is an important part of the picture.

Our Chief Medical Officer, Prof Jonathan Schott, predicted that this conference could be a turning point for how dementia researchers consider and tackle racial differences in the condition. Understanding why different communities are affected by dementia differently will be essential in supporting people to reduce their risk of the condition and in setting the stage for future policy interventions.

Moving closer to a blood test

A blood test would be a simple, cost-effective, and relatively non-invasive way to give key insights about brain changes in Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers across the globe have been working on different approaches to find the blood test that gives the most consistent and accurate results.

This year, researchers from both the US and Europe presented work on a blood test that detects a specific form of tau in the blood. The build-up of tau protein is a key hallmark of Alzheimer’s, and researchers showed that this test could detect the disease even before symptoms appear. It could also distinguish Alzheimer’s from other causes of dementia. Further research in a larger and more diverse group of volunteers needs to be done to see if this test could be used in the clinic.

A reliable blood test for Alzheimer’s disease would be a huge boost for dementia research, allowing scientists to test treatments at a much earlier stage, which in turn could lead to a breakthrough for those living with dementia.

Our scientists share their findings

We were excited to see many of our scientists presenting at AAIC, from researchers at the beginning of their career to established leaders in the field.

Dementia is not just a condition of older age and Prof Nick Fox, who we have supported for many years, gave a keynote talk on early onset Alzheimer’s disease. This diagnosis is given when people develop the disease under the age of 65, and accounts for around 5% of Alzheimer’s cases.

For around 30% of people with the disease, early symptoms are atypical and can include visual and language difficulties. These atypical symptoms combined with the young age of onset typically means that people experience a delay in diagnosis.

Prof Fox highlighted the importance of raising awareness of symptoms beyond memory loss to help people get an accurate and timely diagnosis. The development of blood tests and other diagnostic tools will be an essential part of improving diagnosis so that we can support these people and their families.

If you want to find out more about the disease, you can read our health information or call our Infoline team.

Dementia research is not immune to the effects of the pandemic, and your support is more critical than ever to keep up the momentum. If you can, please donate today to help us make breakthroughs possible at alzres.uk/donate.

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About the author

Claire Bromley