A puzzling epidemic
Despite progress, more questions than answers remain about the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
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With age comes wisdom, but for one in eight baby boomers also comes the possible loss of all they have known, learned and loved with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s no getting around it. Right now, Alzheimer’s, the most prevalent form of dementia, is mind robbing, incurable — and devastating to those who suffer with it and those who care for people with the disease.
“I can say with 100 percent confidence, Alzheimer’s is the public health threat of the 21st century,” says Mark Fried, CEO of the Oklahoma-Arkansas Alzheimer’s Association. Every day, 10,000 boomers turn 65. Every day, 1,250 of them will likely develop Alzheimer’s.
It’s “an escalating epidemic,” Fried says. Today, 5.4 million people — 74,000 of them Oklahomans — suffer from this horrendous illness. For each of these individuals, three more act as some level of caretaker. In 15 years, the incidence is expected to grow to 7.5 million and 96,000, respectively.
If no cure is found during the few next decades, many involved in the fight worry whether America will have the resources to care for the growing number of elderly sufferers.
“(It) creates a burden on our health care system and on our economy that has really gone unchecked and unplanned for by our government and health care,” Fried says.
He notes that the federal government alone has dedicated $500 million to Alzheimer’s research, a huge sum, but it’s dwarfed by the $6 billion a year for cancer and the $4 billion a year for heart disease. The success with finding better answers for those diseases does offer a blueprint: “We know what the investment leads to because we have seen it happen with other diseases,” Fried says, adding that “the next, most important step is for the government to embrace (Alzheimer’s) as a public health issue. It’s not something that affects memory; it’s a disease of the brain.”
Researchers are constantly looking for new ways to treat Alzheimer’s, says Nellie Windsor, director of communications for the Oklahoma-Arkansas Alzheimer’s Association.
“Current drugs help mask the symptoms of Alzheimer’s but do not treat the underlying disease,” Windsor says. “A breakthrough Alzheimer’s drug would treat the underlying disease and stop or delay the cell damage that eventually leads to the worsening of symptoms.
“There are several promising drugs in development and testing, but we need more volunteers to complete clinical trials of those drugs and increased federal funding of research to ensure that fresh ideas continue to fill the pipeline.”
It’s these fresh ideas that give researchers and health care professionals hope that a primary cause and cure will be found. It’s the good news underlying the daily struggles of those with Alzheimer’s and those family members and friends who care for them.
For example, the 2012 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference highlighted four research studies that “demonstrate the wide variety of approaches being pursued to improve memory, thinking, quality of life and quality of care for the millions of people with Alzheimer’s, their caregivers and family members,” according to a recent association press release. One study involved a symptom-relieving drug; another, ways to improve home care for patients.
More intriguingly, two of the studies focused on promising nutritional supplements to improve brain function. Apparently diet does make a difference.
Research does suggest “that steps people take to maintain brain health may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s,” says Denyce
Willis, who coordinates the local Alzheimer’s younger onset program. “Eating a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly may all help protect the brain.”