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Mature Focus: Oct. 9

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A simple blood test may soon be available to detect Alzheimer’s disease decades before symptoms appear.

Alzheimer’s blood test

After years of research, Washington University School of Medicine researchers say they are a step closer to a simple blood test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in its very early stages, well before any symptoms are evident. When combined with other information including the patient’s age and the presence of a genetic variant related to the disease called APOE4, the blood test they developed can predict early Alzheimer’s with 94% accuracy, their recent study found.

The blood test may be even more sensitive than a PET scan of a patient’s brain, which is the current “gold standard” for early diagnosis. Due to the high cost and limited availability of PET scans, such a test also could help speed the development of new drugs to treat Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages – and perhaps prevent it from advancing.

Clinical trials of possible drugs to treat early Alzheimer’s have been hampered by the difficulty of identifying populations of people who have the brain plaques indicative of the disease, but do not yet have cognitive problems. This can happen up to two decades before symptoms occur, said Randall J. Bateman, M.D., the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Distinguished Professor of Neurology and the study’s lead author.

By the time symptoms do occur, the brain has been so severely damaged by these plaques that any treatment can only be of limited help, he added.

“Right now we screen people for clinical trials with [PET] brain scans, which is time-consuming and expensive, and enrolling participants takes years,” Bateman explained. “But with a blood test, we could potentially screen thousands of people a month. That means we can more efficiently enroll participants in clinical trials, which will help us find treatments faster, and could have an enormous impact on the cost of the disease as well as the human suffering that goes with it.”

The scientists’ findings were published in the journal Neurology.

The benefits of napping

For those whose guilty pleasures include a midday snooze, here’s a reason to justify the habit: Research presented at the American College of Cardiology’s recent scientific session shows that daytime napping has significant benefits for heart health in terms of lowered blood pressure. 

The study included about 200 adults who were divided into “napping” and “non-napping” groups. Participants were 62 years old on average; just over half were women. About a quarter had pre-existing health risks such as Type 2 diabetes or a smoking habit. A similar percentage of those in both groups were already taking medicines for high blood pressure.

Researchers continuously monitored both groups’ blood pressures for consecutive 24-hour periods. They found that average 24-hour systolic blood pressure was 5.3 mm Hg lower among the nappers compared with non-nappers [127.6 mm Hg vs. 132.9 mm Hg]. When looking at both  systolic and diastolic blood pressure numbers, people who napped also had better total readings [128.7/76.2 mm Hg vs. 134.5/79.5 mm Hg]. And for each hour spent napping, participants’ 24-hour systolic blood pressure was found to be lower on average by 3 mm Hg.

“Based on our findings, if someone has the luxury to take a nap during the day, it may also have benefits for high blood pressure. We obviously don’t want to encourage people to sleep for hours on end during the day, but on the other hand, they shouldn’t feel guilty if they can take a short nap, given the potential health benefits,” said Dr. Manolis Kallistratos, a cardiologist who led the study. 

“These findings are important because a drop in blood pressure as small as 2 mm Hg can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack by up to 10 percent,” he added. “Napping can be easily adopted and doesn’t cost anything.”

Taking simple steps to reduce blood pressure is especially significant considering the prevalence of this health risk among Americans. According to the American Heart Association, nearly half of all U.S. adults – roughly 103 million – have high blood pressure, which often produces no signs or symptoms but increases the risk of both heart attack and stroke. 

Masters of disaster

Although most people over age 50 say they are fully prepared to handle natural disasters, extreme weather and other types of emergencies, a new national poll shows that may not be the case.

The recent National Poll on Healthy Aging, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy, included interviews with more than 2,200 adults between the ages of 50 and 80 about their readiness for several different types of emergency situations. The poll’s results suggest that many should take steps soon to fill the gaps in their emergency plans.

For example, the nationally representative survey found that less than half of older adults have signed up for community emergency warning systems, which can give critical information in case of storms, natural disasters, and public health emergencies. Less than a third have put together an emergency kit with essential supplies, including medicines, needed to last through an emergency at home, or to take with them in case they must leave home. And only a quarter of those who said they rely on electrical power to run medical equipment have a backup power supply, such as a generator, in case of an extended power outage.

When it came to emergency food and water, just over half of those polled said they had the recommended one week’s worth of these supplies on hand. Even fewer had cell phone chargers and radios that do not require electrical power.

“Whether it’s as straightforward as a power outage that lasts a day, or as severe as a hurricane, tornado or earthquake, preparing can make a huge difference,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, the poll’s director. “A bit of time spent now can protect your health, and spare you worry and expense, when something like this does happen.”

The poll also revealed key areas where most older adults do say they are prepared for emergencies. For instance, 82 percent said they have a week’s supply of their medications on hand, and 72 percent said they have a week’s worth of other necessary health supplies. Experts recommend having at least this amount on hand in case of emergency.

Brain benefits of being social

A new study shows that frequent socializing during middle age reduces one’s risk of dementia in later years.

Being isolated from friends and family has been shown to immeasurably harm both the physical and mental well-being of older adults. But for those who have an active social life during their middle age years, one measurable benefit may include a significantly lower risk of dementia later on.  

British researchers recently completed a long-term study which followed more than 10,000 adults over nearly 30 years. During that time, the participants were periodically asked about their frequency of social contact with friends and family members. They also completed cognitive testing at the same intervals.

The analysis found that people who saw friends or family members on an “almost daily” basis when they were 60 were 12% less likely to develop dementia later in life than those who had only one or two social get-togethers every few months. 

The researchers, from the University of Central London, claim their study provides the strongest evidence to date that social contact at midlife is important in preventing dementia.

“Dementia is a major global health challenge … but we also know that one in three cases are potentially preventable,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Andrew Sommerlad. “This finding could feed into strategies to reduce everyone’s risk of developing dementia, adding yet another reason to promote connected communities and find ways to reduce isolation and loneliness.”

Sommerlad also offered a few explanations for how more frequent social interaction could reduce dementia risk.

“People who are socially engaged are exercising cognitive skills such as memory and language, which may help them to develop cognitive reserve. While it may not stop their brains from changing, cognitive reserve could help people cope better with the effects of age and delay any symptoms of dementia,” he said. “Spending more time with friends could also correlate with being physically active, which can also reduce the risk of developing dementia.”

On the calendar

St. Louis Oasis presents Safety First: Privacy and Safety Online on two Fridays, Oct. 11 and Oct. 18, from 10 a.m.-noon at The J-Chesterfield, 16801 Baxter Road. The internet is a part of our family, social and business lives; it is also where scammers and identity thieves lurk. Protect yourself by learning to recognize phishing and fraud attempts in this class designed for internet users of all ages. You’ll also learn how to create and use effective passwords, practice good security habits, and reduce your exposure to threats. The course fee is $30. To register, visit oasisnet.org.

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St. Luke’s Hospital offers a Total Control Express Course on Mondays, Oct. 14-Dec. 2, from 5-6:30 p.m. at the Desloge Outpatient Center, 121 St. Luke’s Center Drive in Chesterfield. The 7-week “express” version of this course focuses on specific core training exercises and educational discussions to help women improve their pelvic health. It is ideal for those who  have taken the Total Control course in the past and want to refresh, review and maintain the practice. The course fee is $75. Register online at stlukes-stl.com; call (314) 205-6881 with questions.

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BJC Missouri Baptist Medical Center sponsors a Today’s Grandparents class on Wednesday, Oct. 16 from 6:30-9 p.m. at 3023 N. Ballas Road in Building D, Suite 400. This two-hour class serves as an update for grandparents-to-be, and focuses on current trends in infant care as well as tips on both local and distant grandparenting. Discussion is encouraged; a tour of the OB division is included. The cost is $20 per person. Register each grandparent online at https://classes-events.bjc.org.

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St. Luke’s Hospital offers a free presentation, Can You Hear Me Now?, on Thursday, Oct. 17 from 6-7 p.m. at the Desloge Outpatient Center, 121 St. Luke’s Center Drive, Building A. Studies have shown that hearing loss can lead to dementia, social isolation and falls. Learn how high levels of noise at home and in the workplace can impact hearing loss as you age. Join St. Luke’s physician Dr. Cameron Wick to learn more about hearing preservation. Register online at stlukes-stl.com.

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St. Louis Oasis presents All About Artificial Sweeteners on Thursday, Oct. 17 from 10 a.m. to noon at Missouri Baptist Medical Center’s Clinical Learning Institute, 3015 N. Ballas Road, in Room 421. New research is constantly released on how the food we eat impacts diabetes risk and management; learn the latest on the role of artificial sweeteners and sugar on health during this free session. Reservations are required, and are available online at https://classes-events.bjc.org

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St. Louis Oasis offers a 12-session program, Tai Chi for Arthritis for Fall Prevention, on Mondays and Thursdays, Oct. 21-Dec. 12, from 9:15-10:15 at the Chesterfield City Hall Chambers, 690 Chesterfield Parkway West. Learn Sun Style Tai Chi, which utilizes a series of slow, focused movements and deep breathing to relieve pain, reduce stress and decrease fall risk while improving balance, muscular strength, coordination, confidence and mood. In this class, you will learn the Basic 6 and Advanced 6 forms from a certified instructor. The course fee is $84. To register, call (314) 862-4859, ext. 24.

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Missouri Baptist Medical Center sponsors a special presentation, MS Breakthroughs, on Tuesday, Oct. 22 from 5:30-8 p.m. at the hospital’s Clinical Learning Institute, 3015 N. Ballas Road in Des Peres. Join an expert panel to learn about the latest groundbreaking research from the most recent global conference on MS research. Discussions will include treatment updates and future developments to better monitor MS disease activity in patients. Myelin repair strategies will also be highlighted. Attendance is free, but registration is required at https://classes-event.bjc.org. 

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Missouri Baptist Medical Center hosts a Medicare Part D Boot Camp [Medicare Update] session on Thursday, Oct. 24 from 10 a.m.-noon at the hospital’s Clinical Learning Institute, 3015 N. Ballas Road in Des Peres. Medicare Open Enrollment runs from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7; this is the time when you may change your Medicare health or prescription drug coverage for the following year. Before making decisions, join us to learn what changes are anticipated for Medicare in 2020. An expert presenter will provide information on Part D prescription drug coverage and a synopsis of the CLAIM [Missouri] senior health insurance counseling program on how to access their services. Register for the free session online at https://classes-events.bjc.org.

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St. Luke’s Hospital offers a T’ai Chi Course on Tuesdays, Oct. 29-Dec. 3, from 1:30-2:30 p.m. at the hospital’s Institute for Health Education, 222 S. Woods Mill Road in Chesterfield. T’ai Chi has been shown to help reduce blood pressure, decrease stress, improve balance, promote healthy sleep habits and more. This course, for men and women of all ages, meets weekly for six weeks. The course fee is $35. Register online at stlukes-stl.com; call (314) 542-4848 with questions.

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St. Luke’s Hospital presents I Have Hip Pain – What Are My Options?, a conversation with an orthopedic physician, on Wednesday, Oct. 30 from 6-7 p.m. at the hospital’s main campus, 222 S. Woods Mill Road in Chesterfield. Learn about the many causes of hip pain, from the less severe to more serious issues like osteoarthritis, where cartilage in the hip has been destroyed. Attendance is free. Register online at stlukes-stl.com.

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