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Scientists report advances in Alzheimer's detection

Scientists are reporting advances in detecting and predicting Alzheimer's disease at a conference in Honolulu this week, plus more proof that getting enough exercise and vitamin D may lower your risk.

There are better brain scans to spot Alzheimer's disease. More genes that affect risk. Blood and spinal fluid tests that may help tell who will develop the mind-robbing illness and when.

But what is needed most, a treatment that does more than just ease symptoms, is not at hand.

"We don't have anything that slows or stops the course," said William Thies, the Alzheimer's Association's scientific director. "We're really in a silent window right now" with new drugs, he said.

Still, there is some progress against Alzheimer's, a dementia that afflicts more than 5 million Americans and more than 26 million people worldwide. Highlights of what's being reported this week:

Prevention. Moderate to heavy exercisers had half the risk of developing dementia, compared with less active people, researchers from the long-running Framingham Heart Study reported Sunday.

Novel treatments. Tests of an insulin nose spray to improve cognition gave encouraging results, but "it's still a pilot trial" and larger studies are needed to see if this works and is safe, said Laurie Ryan. She oversees Alzheimer's study grants for the National Institute on Aging.

Improved detection. Many types of imaging can document dementia, which usually is diagnosed through cognition tests. For several years, scientists have used one such method, a radioactive dye and PET scans, to see the sticky brain plaque that is a key feature of Alzheimer's. But the dye is tough to use; four companies are developing better ones.

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