Weight Loss and Alzheimer's

Content from the Journal of Neurology

Is This You? Early Signal of Alzheimer's

When older people experience an unexplained weight loss, it could be an early signal of Alzheimer's disease, the Associated Press reports of research from Chicago's Rush University Medical Center. The weight loss, which tends to be gradual and not dramatic, typically occurs years before memory lapses happen.

This fascinating new theory is based on an ongoing study of 820 Roman Catholic priests, nuns and brothers with an average age of 75. At the start of the study, the average BMI of the participants, none of whom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, was 27.4, which is considered overweight. During the 10-year study period, 151 of the 820 volunteers developed the disease. Those whose BMI dropped one point each year had a 35 percent higher risk of developing Alzheimer's later, compared with those whose BMI remained the same.

Why is weight loss an early symptom of Alzheimer's? It appears the disease first attacks brain regions that are involved in regulating food intake and metabolism, says study co-author Dr. David Bennett, who is the director of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center. While weight loss frequently occurs after an Alzheimer's diagnosis, this has been blamed largely on memory lapses and lifestyle changes. Now Bennett thinks brain changes that begin well before the diagnosis could also be the reason.

Dr. Peter Rabins, an Alzheimer's researcher and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told AP this new research confirms what many doctors now believe: that the abnormalities of Alzheimer's "really are present for at least 10 years before there are any symptoms. The idea that something would start before it became clinically obvious no longer seems that farfetched," Rabins explained.

Still, the early weight loss could be due to behavior changes, such as loss of initiative, instead of brain changes affecting metabolism. The problem is that the weight loss is subtle so it's not necessarily recognized until after the Alzheimer's diagnosis is made.

The study findings were reported in the journal Neurology.

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