Alzheimer’s disease and good news? Somehow these two terms don’t fit.
After all, more than five million Americans are afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., which kills more of us than breast and prostate cancer combined. Some experts estimate that as many as 16 million could be afflicted by 2050.
In 2016 alone, Alzheimer’s and other related dementias have cost America an estimated $236 billion. While that figure is staggering, the real cost to families and caregivers is immeasurable.
As we face a new year of fighting Alzheimer’s, the reality is that so much about this disease is still unknown and there are more questions than answers. What drives disease progression? What treatments are most effective? How can we help afflicted families?
After looking into 2016 research findings, initiatives and information on treatment and prevention, I was heartened by what I found.
Here are 10 reasons why I am feeling more hopeful about the future of Alzheimer’s.
1. Awareness grew in 2016
Alzheimer’s is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore. The sheer numbers make it clear that we either know or will know a loved one with the disease, and awareness is higher than ever due to:
- An awareness push throughout November, which is both National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and National Caregivers Month.
- Trailblazing organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association, which spotlight the latest in research, funding and action.
- Celebrity is a powerful platform. While there’s no one spokesperson to singlehandedly bang the drum for awareness and activism, celebrities like B. Smith and her husband Dan Gasby emerged this year as vocal advocates for more research and treatments, as they shared their saga of her shocking early onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis a few years ago.
- The 2016 loss of beloved actor and cultural icon Gene Wilder. We were publicly reminded just how insidious the disease is, as we discovered the toll Wilder’s symptoms had on his final years and family.
2. Dementia rates dropped
Dementia rates for the 65-and-over crowd dropped 24 percent from 11.6 percent in 2000 to 8.8 percent in 2012, according to a JAMA Internal Medicine report. There may be no cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia-related illnesses, but research shows that better overall health means better brain health. We don’t have to wonder if lifestyle changes will help us make to prevent or slow dementia. The numbers bear this out:
- There’s a positive connection between higher levels of education and lower risk of dementia, including that the higher educated exercise more and both weigh and smoke less.
- Doctors and patients are paying more attention to controlling high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which raise the risk of strokes that lead to cognitive decline.
3. More progress on the tau-amyloid connection
In 2013, I profiled Dr. Claude Wischik, a renowned researcher who's spent the last 30 years immersed in the fight against Alzheimer's disease. In a research climate that’s been focused on the amyloid protein, he’s spent decades trying to focus research and funding efforts on the tau protein – which can best be described as the twisted brain fibers, or "tangles," found in Alzheimer's patients – as the disease’s central culprit. Tau and amyloid have long been implicated as cognitive decline culprits. But the two camps have disagreed on which was the main cause of Alzheimer’s.
Now there are more indications that the tau protein plays a key role in memory loss. As noted recently in Science Magazine, “Although this evidence won’t itself resolve the amyloid-tau debate, the finding could spur more research into new, tau-targeting treatments and lead to better diagnostic tools.”
And while earlier studies suggested that the two proteins existed in separate brain regions, new research shows the early-stage presence of both, and in the same brain region. “This study shows that specific forms of tau and amyloid appear early in the disease process in the same brain region, before plaques and tangles are formed,” Professor Bettina Platt, Chair in Translational Neuroscience at the University of Aberdeen, said in a news release earlier this month. “Understanding which forms of tau and amyloid drive the early stages of Alzheimer’s will allow scientists to design drugs to target these specific forms and find new ways to accurately diagnose people.”
4. Fighting chronic inflammation may be a key prevention tool
Most of us have heard how chronic inflammation is detrimental to our health and can be, in particular, a major factor in autoimmune diseases. Earlier this year, a study published in Brain: a Journal of Neurology revealed that inflammation may drive Alzheimer’s, too. The good news is that there are clear-cut ways to battle inflammation through diet, exercise and self-care. Will a chemical to lower neuroinflammation help protect memory and prevent Alzheimer’s? The next step is testing a drug targeting inflammation related to Alzheimer’s.
5. New Alzheimer’s marker offers hope for treatment
The more we learn about the clinical markers found in people with Alzheimer’s, the greater chances of discovering new treatments to stop or slow those markers. Scientists are always on the hunt for clinical markers that matter. This year, Science Daily reported the discovery of an important new marker called lysozyme, an enzyme that plays a part in immune system health and may play a role in helping to fight Alzheimer’s.
6. Joint Alzheimer’s-Parkinson’s research could mean new treatments for both conditions
Sometimes, combining research efforts can lead to discoveries greater than the sum of their parts. This occurred when imaging to map brain communication showed promise for helping us better understand memory function and motor circuitry. Mallar Chakravarty, Ph.D., of Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal, announced in July that, "our analysis has the potential to significantly impact the design of novel therapeutic interventions intended to delay disease onset, and could potentially suggest new targets for the prevention of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's." It may also help assess early risk of the two diseases for the otherwise healthy.
7. Existing glaucoma and high cholesterol drugs may lower Alzheimer’s risk
Much of our focus is on new research, new treatments and new drugs. Now we know that two existing drugs are already making a difference.
- Brimonidine, a glaucoma medication, has been shown to stop amyloid proteins from forming in the retina. Given the strong link between amyloid proteins and Alzheimer’s – and the fact that some scientists view retinas as a de facto window into the brain where they can scope out Alzheimer’s activity – there’s great hope for the benefits of brimonidine down the road. Researchers at University College of London, who shared their findings earlier this month, have their fingers crossed that this eye medication will also help the brain.
- Another study this year found that statins used to treat high cholesterol may also help reduce Alzheimer’s risk. According to the lead researcher, Julie Zissimopoulos, “All of the statins seem to have some risk reduction, although the findings are much more consistent for the prescription drugs simvastatin and atorvastatin, meaning they consistently reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease across men and women and across most race and ethnic groups."
8. 5 major clinical trials aimed at Alzheimer’s prevention
“We’re living in the era of the prevention trial,” Keith Fargo, Director of Scientific Programs and Outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association told Research Gate, an information service created by scientists for other scientists, in August.
According to the Research Gate report, there are currently five large-scale clinical trials designed to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia symptoms.
“An effective prevention could potentially save a half a million lives a year in the US alone, and even more in the future as the population grows,” Fargo told the magazine.
9. One South American country could offer clues for future prevention
In Antioquia, Colombia, there’s a generational thread made up entirely of extended family members with a gene that leads to Alzheimer’s disease, with onset usually in the mid-40s. As sad as this anomaly is for those afflicted, a 60 Minutes report this year provided hope by revealing how it provides a unique scientific opportunity to test treatments on a relatively large, similar sample. National Institute of Health, philanthropists and a drug company are spending millions of dollars on study to see if Alzheimer’s is preventable by administering a drug to remove amyloid plaque. Results aren’t expected until 2021.
10. Federal funding for research highest in history
This year, Congress approved an additional $350 million in federal funds for Alzheimer's research -- the biggest-ever spike and 60 percent over 2015 levels. Right now, the total annual funding for NIH for Alzheimer's and related dementias stands at $991 million. There are proposed increases in both the House and Senate for a 2017 increase, and that’s a step in the right direction, if not the huge leap toward the annual $2 billion amount it’s projected our nation needs to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s. Where do we go from here with federal funding?
Given raised levels of awareness and public demand for action, there is pressure on for more support at the federal level, and non-profits and private organizations will continue their focus on funding for prevention and treatment, too.