Researchers Receive $20M NIH Grant to Study Protection From Alzheimer’s Disease

Why are some 100 plus-year-old men and women as cognitively alert and intact as peers thirty years younger? Why has Alzheimer’s disease (AD) not impacted them?

Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, FACP, professor of medicine, and Stacy Andersen PhD, assistant professor of medicine, and their colleagues seek to learn more about these centenarian cognitive super-agers, thanks to a $20 million grant from the National Institute on Aging and the McKnight Foundation.

Perls and Andersen along with George Murphy, PhD, associate professor of medicine and co-director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine, will study the resilience against AD in centenarians and their offspring.

Four and a half million people in the US currently have AD. If nothing is done to significantly impact this disease, with the aging of the baby boomer population, this number will increase more than threefold to fourteen million by 2040. It is the most common cause of dementia and the fifth leading cause of death in adults older than 65 years. It slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. The total health care costs for the treatment of Alzheimer disease in 2020 is estimated at $305 billion, with the cost expected to increase to more than $1 trillion as the population ages.

Centenarians delay disabilities into their mid-90s. Some remain cognitively intact despite extreme exposure to the strongest risk factor for cognitive impairment and AD—aging. “Despite the fact that aging is one of the strongest risk factors for cognitive impairment, aging in centenarians is typified by resilience and in some cases resistance to aging-related disability into the mid-90s,” explains Perls, who also is founder and director of the New England Centenarian Study.

By studying approximately 500 centenarian cognitive super-agers, Perls and his team hope to identify protective factors and underlying mechanisms that offer resilience or in some cases, even resistance, against cognitive decline and dementia.

“We aim to discover genetic variants and biological mechanisms that protect against aging-related brain changes and AD and then translate those findings into therapeutic strategies and targets,” he adds.

Other institutions participating in this multidisciplinary research include Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Columbia University, University of California Los Angeles and the University of Utah.

A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is the largest biomedical research agency in the world.