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Can Viagra Prevent Alzheimer's Disease?

A new study sheds light on new, potential treatment options for Alzheimer's. One of the most debilitating conditions facing men and women later in life. There is no cure for the condition. Typically existing treatment options are quite limited in terms of stopping the progression of the disease. Yet, a new study published in December of 2021 in Nature found that a drug already used may offer a solution. The study found that sildenafil, a drug commonly known by its brand name Viagra, may be able to prevent Alzheimer's disease.

How Viagra May Help Prevent Alzheimer's Disease

The new study found that people who took Viagra over some time were less likely to experience the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Sildenafil is an erectile dysfunction medication and used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure. The drug has been used for decades to help men who struggle with erectile dysfunction by improving blood flow to the reproductive organs.

Feixiong Cheng, Ph.D., of the Genomic Medicine Institute at the Cleveland Clinic led the research on this new connection between Viagra and the degenerative condition. Cheng and the team reviewed literature. They found many animal studies that showed potential treatment effects for those struggling with Alzheimer's disease. This was in preclinical models.

The study was extensive, covering data from more than 7 million people who used sildenafil. That data showed that the drug reduces the likelihood of Alzheimer's disease development. The hope is that this study's findings may help encourage the use of this drug to fight dementia. Fight it both for prevention and as a treatment to the existing disease.

The research did not target Viagra specifically initially. Rather, the group began by looking at insurance data alongside the use of a gene-mapping network to study over 1600 drugs. Those drugs already approved by the FDA. Drugs that were currently being used for various other health conditions and treatments. The group used integrated genetic and other information. They did this to determine if any of the existing drugs used today could impact Alzheimer's disease.

Their research plan looked specifically at drugs that target two proteins noted as markers for the disease. These are called amyloid and tau. They focused on drugs capable of targeting both proteins rather than just a single protein. Over the past 20 years, numerous studies have been done that targeted just one protein or the other, rather than both at the same time. Those studies failed to find any relevant solution to Alzheimer's.

Why would that be? Specifically, Alzheimer's is a complex set of diseases rather than a single condition. It's brought on by many factors as well. They learned that this approach of targeting both proteins at the same time might open the door for treatment opportunities. Opportunities across the various pathways of the disease.

Through all that work and digging through 1600 drugs, they found that sildenafil offers a significant solution.  

Looking at Results Over 6 Years and a 69% Improvement

The Cleveland Clinic team of researchers worked on this project and followed patients for six years. They found that people who took sildenafil (for erectile dysfunction or blood pressure) were 69% less likely to develop Alzheimer's than those who did not take the medication during their lifetime.

During their study, they looked at what the drug was doing that could impact the onset of this disease. They found that, in a lab model, sildenafil targeted the tau protein, and as it did, it helped to increase brain cell growth. This may shed some light on how it works to prevent the onset of the condition.

The results were that sildenafil was associated in some way with Alzheimer's and, in some way, helped to reduce the risk of the condition. However, there are limitations to consider.

Limitations of Success in Treatment

Much more research is necessary to better understand the "why" and "how" components of this equation. The research conducted was thorough and looked at various components of the disease. Yet, possible confounding factors may still exist. Factors that may be limiting the available clinical knowledge of this disease.

The study's data came from insurance claims. Claims which do not contain as much data as would be helpful, such as a person's sex, genetic risk, or socioeconomic status.

In short, to confirm that the drug offers some level of help and support, further research is necessary. Clinical trials are an essential next step to better understand if this drug can be used to treat Alzheimer's disease in mainstream ways. The researchers at the Cleveland Clinic state they are working on a randomized control trial to take it to the next level.

How Alzheimer's Is Treated Today

Alzheimer's disease is one of the most complex conditions present today. Researchers lack a significant amount of understanding of what causes it and its treatment options. There is no cure for the disease. In some cases, there are few treatments that can slow its progression.

There are medications currently used to help with memory, dementia-related behaviors, and cognition. This includes medications such as Aducanumab (Aduhelm) and Cholinesterase inhibitors (Aricept, Razadyne, and Exelon).

Alternative treatments and lifestyle changes may also be helpful to some. That may include the use of supplements such as Coenzyme Q10 and coral calcium. Though these are not proven treatment options, as noted by the Alzheimer's Association. More treatment options include behavioral changes. These include improving sleep issues, better management of sundowning, and aiding in the reduction of emotional distress and outbursts. Working to cut or minimize triggering situations may also help to improve a person's quality of life.

Whether Viagra becomes a treatment option for those with Alzheimer's is not yet known. This is due to the significant amount of testing and trials needed to determine its effectiveness and safety. Yet, for many, this study provides hope that treatment of this debilitating condition may one day be in hand.

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