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    Gene for Alzheimer's Risk May Affect Brain Early

    Study Shows Young Adults With Gene Show Signs of Changes in the Brain

    Genetic Link to Alzheimer's Disease continued...

    The findings suggested that the change in the white matter was due to reduced integrity of the myelin, the protective coating covering the brain cells.

    The study suggests the gene variant ''does its work very early," Thompson says. And it does so, he says, not by forming the plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease but by damaging the myelin, the protective coating on the brain's nerve cells.

    It's known that in Alzheimer's disease, the white matter pathways deteriorate due to impaired myelin and other factors.

    Alzheimer's Risk Is 'Minor'

    The study findings are unique but also preliminary, says Charles DeCarli, MD, professor of neurology at University of California, Davis. He reviewed the study for WebMD but was not involved in the research.

    He agrees that the study provides the first clear evidence of what the gene variant does to the brain.

    While the gene variant is widespread in the population, people should not be unduly alarmed, he says. "This is a perfect example of what we we call a susceptibility factor." In the big picture, "it is a very minor risk factor for Alzheimer's."

    "The idea here, if we confirm it, is that this is probably a susceptibility factor, that the myelin is somehow more vulnerable and it is somehow more vulnerable to any brain disease," says DeCarli, who directs the university's Alzheimer's Disease Center.

    "It is furthering our understanding of many risk factors that lead to potential cognitive impairment as we get older and that make us more vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease," he says.

    Lifestyle Tips for Brain Health

    The new research shouldn't make people anxious, Thompson agrees.

    Rather, he hopes it motivates people to improve or maintain a healthy lifestyle. "You can more than erase the hit this gene gives you," he says.

    There are proven ways to protect brain health, he says, including:

    • Engaging in cardiovascular exercise
    • Eating a healthy, low-fat diet
    • Stimulating the brain by learning something new or traveling

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