Bracing for the Alzheimer's Surge

"It's very sad. It's a very sad disease. It's sad to watch. It's sad when she asks who you are [and] doesn't remember her own grandson, but that's part of the progression."

Having spent the last 12 years caring for her ailing mother, Mary Dickson has seen the effects of Alzheimer's, a progressive disease of the brain that affects more than 5.5 million people in the United States firsthand. Over time, people with Alzheimer's experience a gradual loss of memory and a weakened ability to learn, reason and make judgments.

"It's estimated that there are 26.5 million people in the world with [Alzheimer's disease], and it's expected to quadruple by the year 2050," said Ronald Petersen, vice chair of the Medical Scientific Advisory Council of the Alzheimer's Association. "We're talking huge numbers of people who will develop it."

But at a conference that ended Tuesday in Washington, D.C., scientists from all over the world met to look at ways to change that.

The International Conference on Prevention of Dementia, held by the Alzheimer's Association this week, aimed to bring people together to discuss new treatments and ways to catch this disease before it strikes.

"The problem is huge, and we need to identify it early and treat it early," Petersen said. "And it looks like we're getting there on those two fronts."

New Treatments

In terms of treatments, researchers appeared optimistic that new ways to fight the disease were on the horizon.

One of the new hopefuls is a drug called Dimebon, which was originally used in the treatment of allergies. A Russian study of 120 patients suggested it may be able to improve the lives of Alzheimer's patients in terms of mental capacity and daily activities.

For a disease in which progressive decline is the norm, this is good news.

"It has subsequently been found out that Dimebon has multiple targets within the brain cells and some of them are targets that other drugs do not have," said Rachelle Doody, a professor of neurology at Baylor College of Medicine. Doody contributed to the study.

According to Petersen, this could be helpful for treating patients who do not respond to medications that are currently available. "Different classes of drugs to treat the same disease give the [treating] physician more options," he said.

Another new treatment aims to help a person's immune system fight against the protein clumps in the brain that some believe cause memory loss and other Alzheimer's symptoms.

The solution, in this case, is to take certain immune components from healthy people and inject them into those with Alzheimer's.

"Small numbers of patients tested so far look very promising," said Sam Gandy, director of the Farber Institute for Neurosciences at Thomas Jefferson University. But he added, like many other possible treatments, actual results might be far off.

"It's an interesting concept," he said, "but I don't think enough evidence is there to really be sure it's going on."

One treatment possibility even took the form of a sweet treat; researchers from the company Accera shared results on a therapeutic milkshake for Alzheimer's. They said the drug nourished the brain cells of 152 patients, who, overall, showed improvement in memory and thinking ability when compared to patients who were not on the drug.

"These reports from this meeting show just how many drugs and how many different types of drugs are in the pipeline," Gandy said. "We're excited to see drugs make it to phase 3, where they're about to be approved."

But the news for Alzheimer's medicines was not all good.

"Federal funding for Alzheimer's disease is being cut," Gandy said. "In 15 years, the cost of caring for Alzheimer's alone in this country will be equivalent to the current entire Medicare budget."

"We need for the public to lobby their lawmakers. Without the research, we won't keep having these medicines."

Finding Alzheimer's Early

While several promising treatments were discussed, many researchers hoped to delve to the root of the problem: detecting Alzheimer's before it becomes problematic.

"A lot of this work is for early identification, so can we identify people in the early stages or when they're normal but have a risk profile," Petersen said. "Then, to the extent we can get in there with these therapies, again, the sooner the better, we can make some major inroads into this disease."

Inroads that will hopefully come soon enough to help treat the millions whom the disease will affect in the future.

"The public has to appreciate that science moves slowly and incrementally, but if you look at now compared to five years ago there has been significant progress, and that's really where we're going," Petersen said.

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