People prescribed beta-blockers have been found to suffer fewer damaging changes in the brain which are an indicator to the devastating disease. A ground-breaking study may now pave the way for a treatment that could delay, slow or even prevent dementia.
With one in three Britons over 65 known to be likely to develop the degenerative brain disorder, the fight to find an effective treatment is becoming more urgent.
If the findings of the beta-blockers study are confirmed in larger clinical trials, the advantage is enormous since the drug is known to be safe and would be quick and cheap to transform into dementia treatments.
Study author Dr Lon White, said: "These results are exciting.
"With the number of people with Alzheimer's expected to grow significantly as our population ages, it is increasingly important to identify factors that could delay or prevent the disease."
The study, to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in San Diego in March, conducted autopsies on the brains of 774 elderly men.
The team carried out the study at the Pacific Health Research and Education Institute in Honolulu.
They found that those who had been given beta-blockers as their only blood pressure medication had fewer abnormalities in their brains compared to those who had not been treated at all, or those who were taking other medications.
If they had received beta-blockers and other medications they showed an intermediate reduction in numbers of brain abnormalities. These included two distinct types of brain lesion — those indicating Alzheimer's disease and lesions called micro-infarcts which are usually attributed to tiny, multiple, unrecognised strokes. Those who had taken beta-blockers alone or in combination with other blood pressure medication had less shrinkage in their brains. The pills are also used to treat angina, heart failure, atrial fibrillation and heart attack. In the Honolulu study 610 of the men — all Japanese Americans —had high blood pressure.
Of those, 350 were being treated for it, with 15 per cent being given only beta-blockers and 18 per cent being given beta-blockers plus one or more other medications.
The rest received other blood pressure drugs. Any type of treatment was felt to be better than no treatment. High blood pressure in mid-life is known to be one of the risk factors for Alzheimer's.
Dr Simon Ridley, of Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "While we can't conclude from this study that beta-blockers can prevent dementia, a better understanding of the links between high blood pressure and dementia could be crucial for developing new treatments. "With 820,000 people affected by dementia in the UK — and that number increasing — we urgently need to find ways to prevent the diseases that cause it.
That requires a massive investment in research." Jessica Smith, of the Alzheimer's Society, said: "This is a small study and more research is needed on a larger scale to find out why beta-blockers might have this effect.
"One in three people over 65 will develop dementia. "While drugs to manage the condition might be far off, eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, getting your cholesterol checked and not smoking can all make a difference." The latest study follows British research, published last October, which revealed that another blood pressure drug, prazosin, can help reduce brain inflammation and prevent memory loss. Previous studies have shown that blood pressure drugs can prevent Alzheimer's, as well as slowing its progression.
The same risk factors for heart disease in middle age — such as smoking and high blood pressure — also accelerate the decline of brain function.
There is no cure for dementia but its progression can be slowed if drugs are taken immediately there are signs of mental impairment. Early drug treatment can delay the onset of the more severe symptoms, such as communication problems, loss of memory and mood swings.(Jo Willey/The Daily Express)