Cracking the Code of Longevity

But the fact that the study merely shows an association between the gene variation and lower rates of senility could temper the enthusiasm of those looking for a quick fix for age-related changes in the brain.

"This is an association; no causal link has been shown," said Dr. Myron Weiner, clinical professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "It could be that this gene is associated with an as-yet undiscovered gene that is the real contributor to longevity and cognition."

And until a more definite link is drawn, the true impact of the findings remains unclear.

"This is pretty early in the research to know its full significance," said Dr. Norman Foster, director of the Center for Alzheimer's Care, Imaging and Research at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "LDL and HDL are known to affect vascular disease, and this may be the main effect on the brain."

Could Improving HDL Help Stave Off Senility?

Still, the treatment implications for the future have many looking forward to the possibility of new methods that could slow or halt some of the aging processes that lead to senility and other age-related changes.

If the findings can be extended to show that HDL levels play an important part in aging, targeting HDL could turn out to be the next strategy in the battle against senility.

"This may indeed be a highly significant finding if altering the gene product could combat [the] normal -- or even accelerated -- aging processes," said Dr. Wendy Wright, assistant professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the division of neurosciences critical care of Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Potentially, these treatments could take the form of drugs designed to raise levels of HDL, such as one that pharmaceutical giant Pfizer was working on, known as torcetrapib.

It was developed to help those with high cholesterol, but the drug trial was halted when it was found that it resulted in a higher risk of death for those taking it. But future drugs to raise HDL without this side effects may eventually be developed to stave off senility.

"The big picture is that drugs being developed to raise HDL or improve its function in order to reduce cardiovascular disease might eventually be able to be shown to also protect against cognitive decline and dementia," Rader said. "This would be huge, but it is a ways off."

Until researchers design drugs and trials to address the problem of senility, however, determining the true potential of such drugs is a guessing game.

"It is too soon for anyone other than researchers to get excited about it," Weiner said.

Genetics, Lifestyle Could Work Hand in Hand

Though therapies remain speculative, many researchers remain optimistic that the finding could lead to a greater overall understanding of the factors behind senility.

"The point is that you don't have to get senile when you age, even if you are over 100," Messmer said. "If you don't have atherosclerosis, you are much more likely to have your mental faculties preserved."

And if you are not fortunate enough to have received this particular gene mutation from your parents?

"You have the option of not smoking, maintaining a normal weight, exercising regularly, treating high blood pressure and lowering cholesterol as far as possible," Messmer said. "Stop atherosclerosis, and keep your mind."

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