Key Findings from the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference

The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference is a time for researchers to come together to share the latest research on Alzheimer’s Disease. This year, the conference took place in San Diego, California, with over 9,000 virtual and in-person attendees and 4,000 scientific presentations (Giordani & Maher, “The Latest in Alzheimer’s Research”, August 2022). Many fresh and exciting topics were discussed, including the association between racism and cognitive decline, the linkage between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and cognitive decline, how socioeconomic status can impact cognition, and the similarities between COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s Disease. The Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center was not only proud to have been in attendance at such an event, but also to have been a part of the dissemination of this breakthrough research.

Racial disparities in health equity have been a focus of research for a long time, and on our center’s radar. This research has discovered that Black individuals are two times as likely to develop dementia compared to other racial groups due to factors such as genetics, lifestyle, timely diagnosis, exercise, and diet. Recent research from AAIC showed that more experiences of racism are associated with a higher rate of cognitive decline and lower memory scores in Black individuals. Overall, wide-ranging discrimination throughout earlier life can lead to lower semantic memory, poorer brain function, and more memory loss later in life. Our center has been focused on racism and the underrepresentation of racial groups in clinical trials for quite some time, so we hope this research will lead to greater well-being amongst minority groups and, hopefully, higher participation of these groups in clinical research.

Another interesting theme was the consumption of ultra-processed foods. We all know that consuming too many ultra-processed foods can be harmful to your body, but new research out of AAIC showed how these foods can be detrimental to your brain as well. Research has shown that the consumption of these ultra-processed foods is associated with faster cognitive decline. More specifically, ultra-processed foods consumed as more than 20 percent of your daily caloric intake can cause this cognitive decline increase. A study from the conference discussed how individuals who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 28 percent faster rate of cognitive decline and a 25 percent increased rate of decline in executive function compared to those who ate the least amount of ultra-processed foods. To further this research, a study discussed the following day mentioned how these types of processed foods can cause inflammation, which we know has already been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. In conclusion, no one is saying to stop eating these foods completely, but as the saying goes, “everything in moderation.”

One major topic of discussion at this year’s conference was the linkage between lower socioeconomic status in childhood and persistent low wages during midlife to an increase in dementia risk and faster memory decline in later life. Low SES oftentimes is accompanied by lower quality neighborhood resources and difficulty paying for everyday needs, all being risk factors for dementia. Kezios and team’s study showed that there is one excess year of cognitive aging for every one-year period amongst those who face persistent low wages in midlife. This means that the level of cognitive aging that these individuals are experiencing over ten years is equivalent to the level of cognitive aging experienced in eleven years by those who have never had persistent low wages. The Alzheimer’s Association Vice President of Health Policy spoke up on Twitter about this topic to shed further light on its importance, saying “It’s vital we continue to study social determinants of health related to cognition so we can implement public health policies that can improve the health and well-being of all.” 

Considering that we are still in a global pandemic and public health crisis with COVID-19, it was no surprise that it was also a topic of discussion at AAIC this year. Previous research has shown that a loss of smell can be a warning sign for later development of Alzheimer’s Disease, but we also know that a symptom of COVID-19 is loss of smell. Current research has been examining the possible connection between these two ideas. Researchers have proven that loss of smell is an inflammatory response that occurs in the brain, as well as that inflammation is linked to the Alzheimer’s Disease process. Through this new knowledge, biomarkers have been shown to be similar in both COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s Disease. The overall idea was that the severity of the loss of smell may be a better predictor of long-term memory issues than the severity of the COVID-19 infection itself. The research will continue as we are able to study the aftermath of COVID-19 and Long-COVID infections in the future and the possible association of cognitive impairments and loss of smell.

Although there were many more topics shown to be making headway in the field of Alzheimer’s research, the Alzheimer’s Association and world-renowned researchers and scientists have deemed many of the topics listed here as most noteworthy. Our center contributed some amazing work alongside top-rated researchers throughout the world. We will continue our work, and we will be sure to report back after the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in the Netherlands next year. To hear about the contributions of our center more specifically, stay tuned for our upcoming print newsletter!