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Lifestyle Factors May Drive Alzheimer's Disease

Madison, Wisconsin - Life stress, insulin resistance, and poor sleep may be precursors to Alzheimer’s disease, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison research presented this week at the 2016 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in Toronto.


Research from scientists in the laboratory of Dr. Barbara Bendlin presented data gleaned from the long-running Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP) study, which has been following 1,500 participants, many of them children of people with Alzheimer’s disease.


The studies looked at changes in the brain that occur before people begin showing symptoms of dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. Identifying risk factors for brain change in people with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease is considered crucial, because treating the disease once symptoms appear has proved ineffective. Wisconsin research presented in Toronto showed:

  • An association between poor sleep and brain abnormalities associated with Alzheimer’s disease, even in adults who are still cognitively normal. The study, conducted in collaboration with the Wisconsin Sleep Program and led by Kate Sprecher, examined 105 WRAP participants. Participants who reported worse sleep showed evidence of more brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s, including differences to the amount of beta amyloid and tau proteins present in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a fluid that surrounds the brain. The findings suggest that poor sleep may be a precursor to developing brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s, or possibly, that poor sleep is an early warning of brain changes.

  • An association between life stress, insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s biomarkers in the cerebrospinal fluid. This study looked at 150 late middle-aged WRAP participants, and found that a combination of risk factors was associated with abnormalities in CSF and positron emission tomography (PET) brain imaging. Dr. Siobhan Hoscheidt, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, found that a combination of greater life stress, insulin resistance, and presence of an Alzheimer’s gene called APOEε4 were associated with more tau protein in CSF and differences shown on PET scans of the medial temporal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for episodic memory. The results suggest that a potentially modifiable risk factor—life stress­—may play a role in brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Taken together, these findings point toward “potential approaches for slowing brain changes associated with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease, including improved sleep, lowering stress, and better management of cardiovascular risk factors,” says Dr. Bendlin. “These approaches are important for everyone, but maybe even more so for people who are already at increased risk of disease due to family history or genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”


The WRAP study—which examines several lifestyle factors—began in 2000, when Dr. Mark Sager of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute began enrolling middle-aged people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The study is now led by Dr. Sterling Johnson and has about 1,500 participants, who complete several questionnaires, come for regular tests of cognitive skills, and undergo blood draws, brain scans, and lumbar punctures, as well as other testing.


Researchers from the UW-Madison were involved in approximately 40 presentations of new findings at the Alzheimer’s conference this year.

Date Published: 07/28/2016

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Lifestyle Factors May Drive Alzheimer's Disease

Last updated: 07/28/2016
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