The Longevity Project Part 2: An unclear correlation — Colorado clinicians and researchers talk Alzheimer’s risk, care in mountain communities
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a four-part series on longevity in the High Country. The series is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Vail Daily, Glenwood Post Independent, Summit Daily News and Steamboat Pilot & Today. Read more at steamboatpilot.com/longevity.
DENVER — It isn’t noticeable at first, starting with changes to the brain that the brain can compensate for, meaning no real impact on day-to-day functions or cognition.
But as time passes, the brain can no longer compensate for these changes and the damage it’s experiencing. Subtle problems with memory and thinking begin to pop up. Subtle turns to noticeable. Noticeable turns to inhibiting the ability to carry out everyday activities and eventually to requiring around-the-clock care.
This is the broad view progression from pre-clinical to severe Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disease that becomes worse with time and age and is the most common cause of dementia, as explained by the Alzheimer’s Association.
In Colorado, an estimated 76,000 people are living with Alzheimer’s dementia, and that number is expected to increase 21% to 92,000 by 2025, a 2020 Alzheimer’s Association report states. As of July 2019, 14.6% of Coloradans or roughly 840,000 people were 65 or older, U.S. Census data shows.
But while generally speaking it’s been shown that living in higher altitude communities in places like Steamboat Springs can lead to a more active, healthier lifestyle and even prolonged life, how does living at altitude impact and correlate with degenerative brain diseases that cause dementia, like Alzheimer’s?
In short, the answer is complicated and not well researched by scientists and clinicians, as explained by Dr. Huntington Potter, director of the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
The Longevity Project event is Sept. 30 with speaker Sean Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor with one lung who climbed Mount Everest.
“As far as I know, there isn’t a lot of evidence one way or another about high altitudes versus low altitudes for Alzheimer’s disease risk,” Potter said. “…We can’t say one way or another whether high altitude is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.”
Dementia at altitude
Alzheimer’s disease is namely the result of the accumulation of the protein fragment beta-amyloid outside of neurons in the brain and of an abnormal form of the protein tau inside neurons, as described by the Alzheimer’s Association.
At the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center, which is part of both the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and School of Medicine, clinicians and researchers are dedicated to discovering effective early diagnostics, preventions, treatments and ultimately cures for Alzheimer’s disease and related neurodegenerative disorders, according to its website.
For Potter, that means looking at biomarkers or diagnostic proteins in the blood that can help clinicians predict the disease earlier and conducting projects that look at the longitudinal sort of lifespan of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other research that can quickly be translated to better care, treatment and hopefully a cure.
Right now, the center is studying a drug called Leukine, which preliminary data shows may actually improve Alzheimer’s disease in the short term, Potter explained. The center also is studying other drugs that attack the disease, which so far are looking very promising as well.
“Leukine may be the first one we found that looks promising, but we have several coming up that look promising as well,” Potter said. “It’s been a tremendous privilege to work with all of the clinicians and scientists and scientist clinicians at the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center, and we’re absolutely determined to make Colorado one of the places that discovers the cure for Alzheimer’s disease.”
When it comes to looking at the potential correlation between living at high altitude and the risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementia-inducing diseases, Potter and Dr. Peter Pressman of the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center said it would take great effort, time and funding to research.
Pressman, who is a behavioral neurologist and researcher with the center, said on top of securing and carefully selecting a large group of people living at altitude to participate in a study, researchers would also have to follow that group for around a decade to get meaningful results, which is not impossible but not easy.
“It’s easy to fund a study for a few years. People give you money to do something for two to three years, but two to three years is not enough time for a process as slow as Alzheimer’s and dementia to really even pick up,” Pressman said. “I’m not saying that’s not possible, it’s doable, but it would take some effort.”
Looking at this potential correlation between living at high altitude and risk of Alzheimer’s dementia and others is not just a difficult feat for Colorado researchers — little research with concrete findings exists nationally and globally as well.
One study published in 2015 by Dr. Stephen Thielke in JAMA Psychiatry looked at deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s dementia reported in 58 counties in California to try to determine whether rates of dementia were associated with average altitude of residence. The study found that the counties at higher elevation generally had lower rates of dementia mortality.
“Oxidative abnormalities have been long proposed to be central to the pathogenesis of dementia,” the study research letter states. “One group of researchers previously found that hypoxia prevents neurodegeneration in rats in experimental Alzheimer disease and hypothesized that adaptation to induced hypoxia may prevent dementia. To our knowledge, our work is the first to find epidemiological evidence for such effects. Additional work is needed to determine whether this relationship holds in other populations.”
But beyond this study, there isn’t much conclusive evidence for or against a correlation, as emphasized by Dr. Brent Kious, a psychiatrist, assistant professor and researcher with both University of Utah Health and the school’s Department of Psychiatry.
Kious has studied the link between living at high altitude and major depressive disorder, anxiety and suicide and said he and his research team have been interested in the impact of altitude on the incidence and median age of onset of Parkinson’s disease, but has not studied this impact or the effects of altitude on dementia risk.
However, Kious said decrements in cognitive performance due to chronic exposure to moderately high elevation might not necessarily translate into an increased risk of dementia, since the symptoms of dementia depend both on baseline cognitive performance and on pathological neurodegenerative processes.
“It is not clear whether altitude would affect those neurodegenerative processes or not, though there is some reason to think that they involve oxidative damage … so relative hypoxia might slow them,” Kious said via email. However, he went on to note that relative and prolonged hypoxia has also been associated with dementia risk, too. “In any case, a good epidemiological study of the association between altitude and dementia should control for things that might be associated with both. “
Better understanding and access to care
While there may not be good data for or against high altitude as an Alzheimer’s and dementia risk factor, there is evidence that people living in more rural communities do not have the same access to dementia care and treatment as those living in urban areas.
According to the 2020 Snapshot of Rural Health in Colorado, produced by the Colorado Rural Health Center, 721,500 people are living in rural Colorado and 19% of the rural population is age 65 or older. Rural is defined as a non-metropolitan county is no cities over 50,000 residents, the snapshot report says.
While there are some dementia care resources in more rural Colorado communities, the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center is working to do more to develop meaningful relationships with health care providers and dementia patients in the state’s mountain communities as part of its mission.
According to Pressman, who is heading this charge on behalf of the CU center, a lot of projects are in the planning stages and process of acquiring funding but include virtually educating medical providers, nurse practitioners and primary care doctors on Alzheimer’s and general healthy brain aging and mutual, participatory research with rural Colorado communities and communities of color.
Pressman explained that a lot of research related to Alzheimer’s overwhelmingly is based on middle class, well-educated, white participants. And so while researchers think they know a lot about the disease in general, they really only know about the disease related to this demographic group.
Through the center’s outreach and efforts to better connect with underrepresented communities, Pressman hopes to conduct better science and better serve the larger Colorado community.
“What motivates me is trying to do good work, trying to do good science and to makes sure our results actually represent real life,” Pressman said. “We want to make sure we’re helping everybody, not just a niche group, and that our services are available equitably to as many people as possible.”
Although there’s no clear correlation between living in higher altitude, mountain communities and dementia and Alzheimer’s risk, it is clear that as America’s aging population reaches 65 and older, these medical conditions will remain a relevant risk for seniors.
Maddie Vincent is a reporter at The Aspen Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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