World Alzheimer’s Day: September 21
How Close Are We to Finding a Cure?
World Alzheimer’s Day is an annual, international event held yearly on September 21. On this day, different Alzheimer’s organizations around the globe concentrate their efforts on both educating and raising awareness of this disease – which affects approximately 5.3 million Americans. Because family members provide a whopping 80% of the care and supervision required (the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that friends and relatives of Alzheimer’s patients provided 17.9 billion hours of unpaid care last year alone) it is often referred to as a “family disease.”
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and today we continue to lack a comprehensive cure.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s include memory loss, confusion, and a declining ability to perform daily tasks.
In its early stages, it is often mistaken for other conditions like depression or Parkinson ’s disease. As a result, only 10% of Alzheimer’s patients typically receive an early diagnosis – an unfortunate statistic, because treatments are most effective when implemented as soon as possible.
New imaging technologies, which are now able to identify deposits amyloid beta – a substance that has been linked to the progression of the disease – do provide a glimpse of hope for improved diagnosis and prognosis of Alzheimer’s, but there is still a long way to go.
While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown, doctors and researchers do know it is associated with two types of nerve damage: amyloid plaques that build up in the brain and tangled nerve cells called neurofibrillary tangles (tau). When neurons die off and can no longer communicate, brain tissue begins to atrophy, further impairing various mental functions. Research has also found that people with certain conditions like high blood pressure and stress are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. In fact, cardiovascular problems in general tend to increase the risk of developing dementias in general, simply because the brain needs the nourishment provided by blood.
It’s important to remember that Alzheimer’s is an international problem – as such, research is being carried out all over the world to help influence the success of future treatments. Many scientists look for treatments to improve vascular health in order to stop the degeneration of the nervous system. Australian scientists, for example, have been working with an ultrasound technology that can clear away the amyloid plaques. They have tested it on mice, and it has so far completely restored the memory function in 75% of them. After more animal trials, they plan to test it on humans in 2017.
English scientists have been working on a drug called “solanezumab”, which has delivered some success in slowing Alzheimer’s symptoms. However, recent announcements around the medication have stated that this drug will may truly assist those who receive an early diagnosis. Like the Australian ultrasound, it targets the amyloid plaques in the brain. Current Alzheimer’s treatments help nerve cells communicate more efficiently, but they lose their effectiveness as the nervous system continues to deteriorate. Treatments that slow or halt the degeneration itself could keep the patient healthy and independent for a longer time – but we are still working our way towards such discoveries.
A team of American researchers attempted to make a vaccine that would stimulate the patient’s immune system into attacking the plaques, Scientists stopped, however, when some participants developed acute brain inflammation. Today, most immunization studies focus on administering antibodies against beta-amyloid from outside sources instead of via an individual’s own immune system.
This year in May, the American government announced that the National Alzheimer’s Project Act intends to find a cure for Alzheimer’s by 2025. This is all well and good of course, but most families are eager to learn what they can do to help their family member right now. Looking on the bright side, there are numerous developing technologies that help Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers stay on top of the debilitating effects of this disease. Location services, provided by wearable tech with GPS functions, can help caregivers find family members who are lost and disoriented. Companies like Bay Alarm and ADT have made home alert systems tailored to seniors, which provide security, smoke and fall detectors — and they can call a doctor in the event of an emergency. These systems, in and of themselves, cannot provide medical treatment or prevent the disease from worsening, but the can help cut back on the cost of a full-time care home while keeping an Alzheimer’s patient comfortable in their familiar surroundings.
As more baby boomers enter their “golden years”, experts expect the number of Alzheimer’s patients to triple to 13.8 million by 2050. These individuals will need daily assistance, and their caregivers will need all the help they can get. For those whom Alzheimer’s “Day” is a year-round endeavor, finding a cure will change everything.