One of the most devastating things to hear is that a senior loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Families can feel helpless as they watch the disease slowly progress and change their loved one into a completely different person. It destroys brain cells and leads to memory loss, decline in brain function, and ultimately, death. To date, there is still no cure.
Over 5 million American seniors have Alzheimer’s disease, a number that is expected to increase 40 percent to reach over 7 million by 2025. As of now, there are Alzheimer’s treatments that improve symptoms like memory loss and reasoning skills by boosting the performance of brain cells, but researchers are hopeful that they can soon develop treatments that stop the progression of the disease altogether. Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the following changes in the brain:
- Plaques, microscopic clumps of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid
- Tangles, twisted microscopic strands of the protein tau (rhymes with “wow”)
- Loss of connections among brain cells responsible for memory, learning and communication. These connections, or synapses, transmit information from cell to cell.
- Inflammation, triggered by the body’s immune system
- Eventual death of brain cells and severe tissue shrinkage
Source: Alzheimer’s Association
While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is up for question, it is generally believed that genetic factors play a significant role. In 1993, researchers identified the first gene that raises a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Over the past few years, scientists have made substantial progress in research of 20 other genetic variations that can increase the risk of development, some of which are specific to the immune system. There are currently trials for four different drugs that researchers hope will help with early detection and aid in prevention of the disease.
Since 2000, more than 200 Alzheimer’s drugs have been tested and none have proven to cure the disease. Past efforts have focused on eliminating plaques, but new trials are instead focused on strengthening cells’ protection against neurological attacks. A team at Stanford University School of Medicine are studying the treatment LM11A-31, or C31, in combination with anti-amyloid (plaques) and anti-tau (tangles) therapies that could prove to counter several neurological problems.
“We think that tau may incite the whole process of neurodegeneration,” Dr. William Jagust, a professor of public health and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, said. “That’s important if you think of Alzheimer’s as moving through standardized group stages. The first stage is [depositing] of amyloid. The second stage, something probably happens with tau. Somewhere in there we begin to see neurodegeneration.”
According to the team, the C31 drug can intervene at any stage of the disease. Dr. Longo of Stanford University School of Medicine found that C31 can disrupt at least 10 of the 14 brain signals that may eventually lead to neuron deterioration. C31 passed phase I clinical trials for safety, and is currently in phase II – human testing on 72 healthy people who don’t have any signs of Alzheimer’s.
“If approved, these could be the first drugs that will change the course of the disease,” rather than just treat its symptoms, said James Hendrix, director of global science initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association. Not only will the drug prevent Alzheimer’s, it could also possibly reverse the effects in those already suffering from the disease, according to Dr. Longo. With successful trials, the drug could be in available in doctors’ offices in the next seven to eight years.
While research for a cure and prevention continues, movements for Alzheimer’s awareness and support of those with disease are also increasing. In 2011, the National Alzheimer’s Project Act was signed into law. It is the first national strategy to address the Alzheimer’s crisis and to plan for future research, improved care for those with the disease, and support for those affected.
Even though there is currently no guaranteed way to prevent the disease, seniors can reduce the risk of developing it (and may even slow its progression) by eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check, and avoiding smoking and drinking too much alcohol.
Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.