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Research at Mass General
Research Roundup is a monthly recap of recent research news from Massachusetts General Hospital. In this month's edition, we cover a new study that suggests DNA is not destiny when it comes to reducing your risk of a heart attack, and a new four-part screening test for Alzheimer's disease that uses both scent recognition and cognition.
It is well known that following a healthy lifestyle—not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise—can reduce the risk of heart attack. But what about people who have inherited genetic factors that have been shown to increase heart attack risk?
A new research study led by Mass General investigators has found among those at high genetic risk, following a healthy lifestyle can reduce the chances of a heart attack by 50 percent. The team analyzed genetic and clinical data from more than 55,000 participants who have enrolled in four large-scale, long-term research studies.
For those at the highest genetic risk of a heart attack, researchers found that following a healthy lifestyle—defined as non-smoking, exercising once a week, eating healthy and maintaining a body mass index of less than 30—reduced their risk of having a heart attack from 11 to 5 percent over a 10 year period.
“The basic message of our study is that DNA is not destiny,” says Sekar Kathiresan, MD, director of the Center for Human Genetic Research at MGH and lead author of the study. “Many individuals—both physicians and members of the general public—have looked on genetic risk as unavoidable, but for heart attack that does not appear to be the case.”
If you are wondering about your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the answer may be found right under your nose.
A Mass General research team has developed a series of four tests designed to measure early indications of Alzheimer’s disease based on an individual’s ability to recognize, remember and distinguish among odors.
The 30-minute scent test was given to 183 people between 60 and 80 years old – some with mild cognitive impairment or possible Alzheimer’s disease—and of those, about 20 percent showed signs of olfactory deficiencies.
Genetic and imaging testing revealed that that these same individuals had other deficiencies that have been linked to the illness, including thickening of certain brain structures and a mutation in a gene associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
While Alzheimer’s disease is known to affect brain structure involved in odor perception, previous tests have not been effective screening tools since the natural ability to identify and distinguish among scents varies greatly among individuals.
The new test developed by Mark Albers, MD, PhD, of the Center for Alzheimer’s Research, takes a four-part approach that includes identification, emotional association, memory and differentiation.
For example in one test, participants were presented with a series of 10 odors—menthol, clove, leather, strawberry, lilac, pineapple, smoke, soap, grape or lemon. They were asked if they could recognize the scent and if they could identify it from a list of four options.
In a subsequent test, the participants were presented with 20 odors, 10 of which were repeats from the first test and 10 that were new. The participants were not only asked to identify each odor, but also to recall if it was included in the first test.
It is estimated that there is a 10-year gap between the start of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain and the first outward manifestation of symptoms. If researchers can better identify individuals in the very early stages of the disease, they may be able to develop therapies that will slow or halt its progression.
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