Alzheimer’s disease is an epidemic in America today and taking a growing toll financially and emotionally, but there’s also new hope among scientists who are searching for a cure.
Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association, came from Chicago to speak in Bozeman on Thursday and Friday. He invited people to join the fight.
“Ultimately, the way to end Alzheimer’s is through science,” Fargo told an audience of about 50 people at Montana State University.
And what science needs is volunteers to participate in more than 250 clinical studies, he said. The Alzheimer’s Association created the TrialMatch online matching service (alz.org/TrialMatch), so that people with dementia, caregivers and healthy volunteers can be matched with studies that fit their situation. A quarter-million people have signed up.
“Alzheimer’s is not normal aging,” Fargo stressed. Age is a risk factor, just as it is for heart attack or cancer.
Today 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s and other dementia. By 2050 that’s expected to grow to nearly 14 million.
Alzheimer’s is the No. 6 cause of death for all Americans. From 2000 to 2015, Alzheimer’s deaths increased by 123 percent, while deaths from other major diseases – breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and HIV – decreased.
Though 16 million Americans provide free care for family members, Alzheimer’s is still very expensive. In 2018 it will cost the United States $277 billion, and that’s expected to balloon to more than $1 trillion.
“We’re paying that through our taxes” for Medicare and Medicaid, he said. “It’s going to get worse.”
Virtually everyone has some cognitive decline as they age – our brain’s processing power peaks at age 27. It becomes harder to remember names or where the car is parked.
Dementia is a set of symptoms – loss of memory, judgment, decision-making and orientation in time and place – bad enough to interfere with everyday life. For most people with dementia, Alzheimer’s is the cause.
The good news is that scientists have made progress in detecting the disease earlier and many are striving to find a cure.
In the bad old days, Fargo said, the only way to tell if someone had Alzheimer’s was to do an autopsy after death to look for the three hallmarks – plaques and tangles in the brain and shrunken brain tissue.
Then about 15 years ago, a University of Pittsburgh scientist, Bill Klunk, proposed a new way of imaging plaques in the brains of living patients. He failed to win a federal grant, but the Alzheimer’s Association funded his research. His new PET scan method worked, and it was “a world changer,” Fargo said.
Researchers discovered that the disease typically starts 20 years before symptoms appear. That creates a big window of opportunity, Fargo said. Now scientists can try new treatments before major damage has been done.
So far, the FDA has approved two drugs, Aricept and Namenda, to slow worsening symptoms. But they only work in about half the population, and only for six to 12 months.
Fargo said factors that appear to protect brains from Alzheimer’s include high levels of education, regular sweat-inducing exercise, eating a heart-healthy diet and keeping engaged socially. Risk factors include diabetes, smoking, drinking too much and being isolated.
“A healthy lifestyle is your first line of defense,” Fargo said.
The Alzheimer’s Association has collected tips on its website as “10 Ways to Love Your Brain.” The Alzheimer’s Association also operates a 24-hour help line for caregivers and patients (800-272-3900).
Lynn Mullowney, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association in Montana, said Fargo’s talk would be posted on the group’s Facebook page.