New research on Alzheimer's, arthritis and cancer survival

Detecting Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages

Australian scientists say they now are much closer to developing a screening test for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. The investigators have identified blood-based biological markers that are associated with the build-up of amyloid beta, a toxic protein in the brain. This plaque build-up develops years before symptoms appear and irreversible brain damage has occurred.

“Early detection is critical, giving those at risk a much better chance of receiving treatment earlier, before it’s too late to do much about it,” said Dr. Samantha Burnham, who is with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia.

These new study findings are part of an ongoing study called the Australian Imaging and Biomarkers Lifestyle Study of Aging (AIBL), which is studying biomarkers, cognitive characteristics and health/lifestyle factors that may be linked with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Another recent study from the AIBL team showed that amyloid beta levels become abnormal about 17 years before dementia symptoms appear,” said Dr. Burnham.

“This gives us a much longer time to intervene to try to slow disease progression if we are able to detect cases early. We hope our continued research will lead to the development of a low cost, minimally invasive population based screening test for Alzheimer’s in the next five to 10 years.”

Moderate drinking may reduce risk of rheumatoid arthritis

Moderate consumption of alcohol may be associated with a reduced risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, according to Swedish researchers. They have just completed a study that shows women who regularly consume more than three alcoholic drinks a week for at least 10 years have about half the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis compared with non-drinkers.

After adjusting for factors such as age, smoking and dietary habits, women who reported drinking more than three glasses of alcohol per week in both 1987 and in 1997 had a 52 percent reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis compared with never-drinkers at both assessments. These findings add to a growing body of evidence that long-term moderate alcohol consumption is not harmful and even may protect against a chronic disease like rheumatoid arthritis, according to the researchers.

The Swedish researchers analyzed the association between alcohol intake and rheumatoid arthritis among 34,141 Swedish women born between 1914 and 1948. Detailed information about alcohol consumption, diet, smoking history, physical activity and education level was collected in 1987 and again in 1997. All these subjects were followed for seven years (January 2003 to December 2009) when they were aged 54-89 years.

One standard glass of alcohol was defined as approximately 500 ml beer, 150 ml of wine or 50 ml of liquor. The reduced risk was similar for all three types of alcoholic drink.

The researchers say the effects of higher drinking levels on the risk of rheumatoid arthritis remains unknown. However, they say moderate alcohol consumption’s ability to prevent rheumatoid arthritis is most likely to due to alcohol’s ability to lower the body’s immune response.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease and it causes the immune system to attack the cells that line the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis has a gender bias and strikes women three times more often than men.

Winning the war on cancer

Better screening tools and improved therapies are leading to more and more Americans surviving a diagnosis of cancer. The American Association for Cancer Research has just released its second Annual Report on Cancer Survivorship in the United States and it found there were approximately 13.7 million cancer survivors, a number that is expected to rise by 31 percent to 18 million by 2022.

“The increase in the number of survivors will be due primarily to an aging of the population. By 2020, we expect that two-thirds of cancer survivors are going to be age 65 or older,” said Julia Rowland, Ph.D., who is the director of the Office of Cancer Survivorship at the National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland.

The current report was based on an analysis of the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program and population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau. The new data show significant advances have occurred in combating prostate cancer and breast cancer. Currently, women with breast cancer account for 22 percent of survivors and men with prostate cancer make up 20 percent. People with lung cancer, the second most common cancer in terms of diagnosis, only represent 3 percent of survivors.

“For patients with prostate cancer, we have a nearly 100 percent five-year survival rate, and breast cancer has made tremendous strides as well, with five-year survival rising from 75 percent in 1975 to almost 89 percent in 2012,” said Rowland. “However, we clearly need to have better diagnostic tools and better treatments for lung cancer.”

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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