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Curbing the odds of Alzheimer's for those at greater genetic risk

Cleveland Clinic researchers are studying whether high-intensity cycling can prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Alzheimer's Disease is a game of "odds."

There's no known single cause, though a healthy lifestyle can improve your chances of preventing it. However, 20-30% of the U.S. population carry a gene, putting them at higher risk than any other group.

They can't change their DNA, but a clinical trial here in Northeast Ohio could change the game.

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Gloria Simms is a good sport. She agreed to break a sweat for us in a Cleveland Clinic building, rather than the privacy of her own home. 

"I exercise for 30 minutes, three times a day," she explained as she went over her role in the CYCLE-AD trial. "I usually do it Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays."

The randomized controlled trial, named CYCLE-AD (Cycling to Cease or Limit the Effects of Alzheimer's Disease), is led by co-principal investigators Dr. Jay Alberts from the Clinic's Department of Biomedical Engineering and Dr. Stephen Rao of the Luo Ruvo Center for Brain Health. The purpose is to find out whether high-intensity exercise can prevent or delay onset of Alzheimer's disease.

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Simms is one of 150 participants, all members of an exclusive club to which they'd rather not belong.

"They are people who are genetically at risk for Alzheimer's, who have family history in Alzheimer's, a certain genetic marker," Rao explained.

That genetic marker is Apolipoprotein E. It has three different components: E2, E3, and E4. 

"If you have one of the E4s — which is about 20% of the population — your chances of getting Alzheimer's between 65 and 80 increases three times," Rao told us. 

Gloria felt her involvement in the study was very important. 

"Especially to the African American community, because we have a tendency not to want to do these studies because of history," she said. 

There are two randomly chosen groups within the 18-month trial. One is in the exercise group with Peloton cycles, selected because they have internet connections and allow researchers to track participants remotely. 

The other group also has the cycles, but are told to continue whatever they were doing prior to the study, such as walking. 

All are between ages 60 and 85 with that genetic marker, and they have a baseline evaluation deeming them healthy, cognitively intact, sedentary.

Can this type of cardiovascular exercise help prevent Alzheimer's in those with the genetic link? Rao says even delaying Alzheimer's onset could have a profound impact.

"If we can delay the normal onset of Alzheimer's disease by just five years, we can cut the number of people who are diagnosed in half," he said. 

Meanwhile, Gloria is enjoying retirement, with a bucket list she's determined to fulfill.

"One of my prayers is that I've always wanted my mind to outlive my body," she said, so this pushes me to get to that point."

To learn more about the CYCLE-AD study, click HERE.

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