Alzheimer’s prevention may be less about new drugs, more about income, zip code and education
That your risk of Alzheimer’s disease depends on your salary, what you ate as a child, or the block where you live may seem implausible. But researchers are discovering that social determinants of health (SDOH) play an outsized role in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, possibly more than age, and new strategies are emerging for how to address these factors.
At the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, a series of presentations offered evidence that a string of socioeconomic factors—such as employment status, social support networks, education and home ownership—significantly affected dementia risk, even when adjusting data for genetic risk. What’s more, memory declined more rapidly in people who earned lower wages and slower in people who had parents of higher socioeconomic status.
In 2020, a first-of-its kind study in JAMA linked Alzheimer’s incidence to “neighborhood disadvantage,” which is based on SDOH indicators. Through autopsies, researchers analyzed brain tissue markers related to Alzheimer’s and found an association with these indicators. In 2022, Ryan Powell, the lead author of that study, published further findings that neighborhood disadvantage was connected with having more neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques, the main pathological features of Alzheimer's disease.
As of yet, little is known about the biological processes behind this, says Powell, director of data science at the Center for Health Disparities Research at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “We know the association but not the direct causal pathway.”
The corroborative findings keep coming. In a Nature study published a few months after Powell’s study, every social determinant investigated affected Alzheimer’s risk except for marital status. The links were highest for income, education, and occupational status.
Clinical trials on new Alzheimer’s medications get all the headlines but preventing dementia through policy and public health interventions should not be underestimated.
The potential for prevention is significant. One in three older adults dies with Alzheimer's or another dementia—more than breast and prostate cancers combined. Further, a 2020 report from the Lancet Commission determined that about 40 percent of dementia cases could theoretically be prevented or delayed by managing the risk factors that people can modify.
Take inactivity. Older adults who took 9,800 steps daily were half as likely to develop dementia over the next 7 years, in a 2022 JAMA study. Hearing loss, another risk factor that can be managed, accounts for about 9 percent of dementia cases.
Clinical trials on new Alzheimer’s medications get all the headlines but preventing dementia through policy and public health interventions should not be underestimated. Simply slowing the course of Alzheimer’s or delaying its onset by five years would cut the incidence in half, according to the Global Council on Brain Health.
Minorities Hit the Hardest
The World Health Organization defines SDOH as “conditions in which people are born, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.”
Anyone who exists on processed food, smokes cigarettes, or skimps on sleep has heightened risks for dementia. But minority groups get hit harder. Older Black Americans are twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia as white Americans; older Hispanics are about one and a half times more likely.
This is due in part to higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure within these communities. These diseases are linked to Alzheimer’s, and SDOH factors multiply the risks. Blacks and Hispanics earn less income on average than white people. This means they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food, medical care, and good schools, and suffer greater exposure to noise (which impairs hearing) and air pollution—additional risk factors for dementia.
Related Reading: The Toxic Effects of Noise and What We're Not Doing About it
Plus, when Black people are diagnosed with dementia, their cognitive impairment and neuropsychiatric symptom are more advanced than in white patients. Why? Some African-Americans delay seeing a doctor because of perceived discrimination and a sense they will not be heard, says Carl V. Hill, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at the Alzheimer’s Association.
Misinformation about dementia is another issue in Black communities. The thinking is that Alzheimer’s is genetic or age-related, not realizing that diet and physical activity can improve brain health, Hill says.
African Americans are severely underrepresented in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s, too. So, researchers miss the opportunity to learn more about health disparities. “It’s a bioethical issue,” Hill says. “The people most likely to have Alzheimer’s aren’t included in the trials.”
The Cure: Systemic Change
People think of lifestyle as a choice but there are limitations, says Muniza Anum Majoka, a geriatric psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, who published an overview of SDOH factors that impact dementia. “For a lot of people, those choices [to improve brain health] are not available,” she says. If you don’t live in a safe neighborhood, for example, walking for exercise is not an option.
Hill wants to see the focus of prevention shift from individual behavior change to ensuring everyone has access to the same resources. Advice about healthy eating only goes so far if someone lives in a food desert. Systemic change also means increasing the number of minority physicians and recruiting minorities in clinical drug trials so studies will be relevant to these communities, Hill says.
Based on SDOH impact research, raising education levels has the most potential to prevent dementia. One theory is that highly educated people have a greater brain reserve that enables them to tolerate pathological changes in the brain, thus delaying dementia, says Majoka. Being curious, learning new things and problem-solving also contribute to brain health, she adds. Plus, having more education may be associated with higher socioeconomic status, more access to accurate information and healthier lifestyle choices.
The chasm between what researchers know about brain health and how the knowledge is being applied is huge. “There’s an explosion of interest in this area. We’re just in the first steps,” says Powell. One day, he predicts that physicians will manage Alzheimer’s through precision medicine customized to the patient’s specific risk factors and needs.
Raina Croff, assistant professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, created the SHARP (Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-imagery) walking program to forestall memory loss in African Americans with mild cognitive impairment or early dementia.
Participants and their caregivers walk in historically black neighborhoods three times a week over six months. A smart tablet provides information about “Memory Markers” they pass, such as the route of a civil rights march. People celebrate their community and culture while “brain health is running in the background,” Croff says.
Photos and memory prompts engage participants in the SHARP program.
The project began in 2015 as a pilot study in Croff’s hometown of Portland, Ore., expanded to Seattle, and will soon start in Oakland, Calif. “Walking is good for slowing [brain] decline,” she says. A post-study assessment of 40 participants in 2017 showed that half had higher cognitive scores after the program; 78 percent had lower blood pressure; and 44 percent lost weight. Those with mild cognitive impairment showed the most gains. The walkers also reported improved mood and energy along with increased involvement in other activities.
It’s never too late to reap the benefits of working your brain and being socially engaged, Majoka says.
In Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute launched the The Amazing Grace Chorus® to stave off cognitive decline in seniors. People in early stages of Alzheimer’s practice and perform six concerts each year. The activity provides opportunities for social engagement, mental stimulation, and a support network. Among the benefits, 55 percent reported better communication at home and nearly half of participants said they got involved with more activities after participating in the chorus.
Private companies are offering intervention services to healthcare providers and insurers to manage SDOH, too. One such service, MyHello, makes calls to at-risk people to assess their needs—be it food, transportation or simply a friendly voice. Having a social support network is critical for seniors, says Majoka, noting there was a steep decline in cognitive function among isolated elders during Covid lockdowns.
About 1 in 9 Americans age 65 or older live with Alzheimer’s today. With a surge in people with the disease predicted, public health professionals have to think more broadly about resource targets and effective intervention points, Powell says.
Beyond breakthrough pills, that is. Like Dorothy in Kansas discovering happiness was always in her own backyard, we are beginning to learn that preventing Alzheimer’s is in our reach if only we recognized it.
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization—by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.