Chemotherapy on the Brain

073013-blogSimply surviving cancer gives reason enough to celebrate. To sweeten the pot, researchers at the 2013 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference suggest cancer survivors garner another perk: cancer appears to confer protection against developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Research presented at this conference drew on data collected from 3.5 million veterans age 65 and older who did not experience dementia at the beginning of the study. Researchers report two key findings:

  1. Most cancers (with the exception of prostate, colorectal, and skin cancers) correlate with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Of veterans with Alzheimer’s disease, 24 percent had a history of cancer and 76 percent never had cancer.
  2. Chemotherapy treatment for cancer adds additional protection against Alzheimer’s disease, ranging from 20 percent to 45 percent depending on the form of cancer being treated. 

Previously, the main connection between chemotherapy and cognitive function was the phenomenon of “chemo brain,” which many cancer patients experience as difficulty in concentrating and memory problems after chemotherapy treatment. Fortunately, this mental cloudiness goes away fairly quickly for most patients. Now, it appears, chemotherapy may actually have a cognitive silver lining in the form of a lower risk of later developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Could it be that the veterans with cancer simply didn’t live long enough to develop Alzheimer’s disease? The researchers contend that premature death in cancer patients did not account for the difference in cancer risk.

It remains for future research to tease out exactly which chemotherapy medications provide the greatest Alzheimer’s protection. Once that is known, it’s tantalizing to think that the information could be leveraged to develop a medication against Alzheimer’s disease for all older people, regardless of their cancer status. In the meantime, it’s important to keep in mind that this Alzheimer’s-cancer research is in the preliminary stages; publication in peer-reviewed journals is still needed.

Risks of Alzheimer’s Disease

Additional studies presented at this 2013 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference uncovered numerous medications and lifestyle links that can raise or lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • While having diabetes might increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, the diabetes medication Metformin might decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in older people with type 2 diabetes.
  • Retiring at a younger age might increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Previously, being African-American was thought to increase the risk of this disease, but now this increased risk is thought to instead be accounted for by socioeconomic disparities.

What do you think

I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section below.

Stephen C Vogt, PharmD
President and CEO
BioPlus SP

Alzheimer’s Association. 2013 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. Boston, July 13-18, 2013.

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