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Alzheimer's disease is an especially horrible affliction in part because modern medicine can offer little in the way of an effective treatment. But this week brought a few rays of hope on several research fronts for this mind-robbing illness.

Scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have discovered that a variation of a certain gene seems to slow age-related decline in brain function.

The gene is known to boost levels of "good cholesterol," which helps keep blood vessels free of fatty deposits. Previous studies have already suggested that people lucky enough to be born with this gene variant have a reduced chance of developing heart disease. The new research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates this so-called "longevity gene" helps protect the brain, too.

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In a study of 523 seniors, those who carried two copies of the gene variant (one from each parent) had a 70-per-cent reduction in their risk of getting Alzheimer's disease compared with those who had no copies of it.

Of course, there's not much you can do about your genetic inheritance. But the senior author of the paper, Richard Lipton, says it may be possible to create medications that mimic the gene's effect - and some of those drugs are already in development.

Still, it can take years for an experimental drug to reach the general public. So what do you do in the meantime? Two other studies, both published in Archives of Neurology, suggest a possible option is already at hand - at least when it comes to mild cognitive impairment, if not full-blown Alzheimer's. That option is exercise.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle found that vigorous exercise of 45 to 60 minutes a day, four days a week for six months, seemed to improve mental function in people already showing signs of mild cognitive impairment, an early indicator of Alzheimer's disease.

And a research team at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., concluded that seniors who routinely performed moderate exercise - such as brisk walking, aerobics, yoga, strength training or swimming - during midlife or late life were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment as they aged.

Each one of these studies points to a common conclusion - improving blood flow appears to benefit the brain.

"Our finding is plausible - it makes sense," said Yonas Geda, lead author of the Mayo Clinic study.

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However, Dr. Geda noted that an "interplay of a wide range of lifestyle and genetic factors" likely contribute to the development of Alzheimer's. Modifying just one of them - such as exercise - doesn't provide guaranteed protection.

Even so, "at least you can do something … it is better to exercise, rather than do nothing," he added.

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