Doctor: COVID-19 a bigger threat to dementia patients than isolation

Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan doctors leading the field in researching Alzheimer’s and related dementias are taking part in a conference this week aimed at sharing findings and furthering efforts to find a cure. 

Dr. Irving Vega, an associate professor of translational neuroscience and researcher for the Alzheimer’s Alliance at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, is one of the researchers participating in the virtual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. It began Monday and runs through Friday.

“It’s the biggest conference in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias and it covers all the spectrum, from basic science to clinical science and then also caregiving and economics related to Alzheimer’s disease,” Vega explained to News 8 Monday. 

Currently, 190,000 Michiganders older than 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. By 2025, that number is expected to climb to 220,000, according to MSU.

Vega’s areas of research include how the disease impacts different brain regions as well as engaging minority communities in research to better understand racial disparities among patients.

Latinos are about 1.5 times as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias compared to older Caucasians. African Americans are about two times as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

“Even though it’s more prevalent, Latinos and African Americans are the least (likely) to participate in clinical trials,” Vega said. “So we want to acknowledge that and actually contribute to increasing their participation.”

Families of Alzheimer’s patients living in long-term care facilities have faced additional worries amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They fear the lack of social interaction because of restrictions preventing in-person visits may be causing symptoms to progress more quickly. Vega agreed there’s a correlation but said the risk of infection outweighs the rewards of in-person visiting right now.

“There’s a process of inflammation that’s already taking place in a person that has Alzheimer’s disease,” Vega explained. “Inflammation is one of the components of the pathobiology of Alzheimer’s disease and the vascular aspect of Alzheimer’s disease is another one, that’s an important biological component of the disease. With COVID-19, you’re hitting both. You have an inflammatory response and the virus attacks the vascular structure by constraining the flow of blood, so now you have two aspects that are associated to Alzheimer’s disease being attacked by this virus. … We have to have extra protection for people living with dementia, which means more isolation, which means also it’s bad for them, but it’s less than having (them) infected by COVID-19.”

Vega recommends connecting via video chat as the best way to combat isolation concerns. He suggested playing a game over FaceTime or watching a movie at the same time, if possible. 

He also urged people to acknowledge the stress the pandemic is putting on everyone. He reminded everyone that sleep and finding other stress outlets is critical for brain health, regardless of whether someone is a dementia patient or not.

“Take that book you wanted to read at some point and do that exercise, do that home project that you wanted to do and engage in those kind of activities,” Vega said. 

More information about the Alzheimer’s conference can be found online, and you can learn more about Vega’s research through his lab website. Vega also recommended those interested in learning more about the disease and research efforts in Michigan to follow the Michigan Dementia Coalition

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