Dementia and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's disease are of major concern to senior healthcare experts. Back in 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month— a month dedicated to raising the public profile of Alzheimer's and other dementia sufferers, and also dedicated to promoting research on new treatment methods and more effective memory care measures.
Ironically, Alzheimer's would in 2004, and following a long decline, claim President Reagan's life.
Yet even in one of his last addresses to the American people, he stressed the need to publically discuss the ramifications of the disease. In a 1994 open letter, composed just following his initial diagnosis, Reagan wrote:
"I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.
"In the past Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had my cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing… So now, we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it."
Today, an estimated 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, and that number is expected to grow as the Baby Boomers reach advanced age. But research is ongoing, and there are increasing hopes that one day, Alzheimer's will not only become preventable and treatable, but curable. We have seen several important breakthroughs this year in the search for better Alzheimer's treatments. Here are a few of the more compelling discoveries.
Growing Alzheimer's disease in a jar?
In the search for better research models, two neuroscientists at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital developed a method for growing human neuron cells, using embryonic stem cells, in a bio gel. The neuron cells were found to grow neural nets similar to the way they would in the brain.
By growing neurons that possessed genes known to be associated with an increased Alzheimer's risk, the researchers were able not only to develop a model that looked very much like an Alzheimer's-afflicted brain, but also to gather strong evidence that developing the condition may be genetic in many cases. They hope that the dish-based neuron model can be used to quickly trial new drugs in the search for effective cognitive disorder treatments— and to rule-out those that would be harmful— before time and money are spent on longer, animal-based trials.
Better predictive testing may lead to more effective early treatment.
One of the biggest barriers doctors have faced in treating Alzheimer's is that once a person has become symptomatic, enough structural damage has already been done to the brain that recovery would be impossible.
This year, however, scientists at King's College London and Oxford University announced that that had developed a new blood test that can detect 10 proteins that are found in asymptomatic, but imminently-developing Alzheimer's disease cases. The research team found that the blood test could predict the onset of Alzheimer's disease with 87% accuracy. It is much cheaper than expensive PET scans and less invasive than plasma-screening lumbar punctures that have already been found to be somewhat effective in detecting developing Alzheimer's.
The British researchers hope that, with early detection, new drugs could be developed that would inhibit the potentially causal protein factors.
Using a blood pressure drug to reduce associated risk factors.
One of those new drugs may already have been identified.
In October, researchers with the Roskamp Institute in Sarasota, Fla., announced findings that an antihypertensive medication commonly used in Europe— nilvadipine— may inhibit spleen tyrosine kinase, an enzyme that may be responsible for the development of three Alzheimer's-associated pathologies: Beta amyloid plaques in the brain, the tau protein and inflammation in cerebral tissues.
Nilvadipine is a calcium channel-blocker that is extensively used in Europe. The research trial that discovered its possible therapeutic use for Alzheimer's patients was conducted on 500 patients in Ireland by the Roskamp Institute in association with Trinity College in Dublin. Although nilvadipine is not used in the United States, it has been prescribed and safely used in Europe for the past 20 years, so FDA approval may be sought soon.
Many advances have been made in memory care this year.
With promising new research models, tests and treatments on the horizon, a cure for Alzheimer's disease and other dementia disorders may not be far off. Increased awareness and funding— the goals of National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month— can only help in the fight to finally defeat dementia and help seniors to live well longer.