Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive, degenerative disease (meaning that is gradually get worse over time) that, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH) affects around 5 million people in the United States alone. AD, however, does not just affect the patients themselves, but the families who must care for them — and often institutionalize them as the disease gets worse and they become dangerous to themselves and others. The emotional and social impact of this disease is significant: the Alzheimer’s Foundation estimates that it costs $60 billion in the United States alone, including the cost of lost work by caregivers and medical and insurance costs. And the price tag is only predicted to rise as the population ages.
A Word on Alzheimer’s
This condition was named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer who was the first doctor to write a description of this disease as far back as 1906. Back then very little was known about AD but when the doctor did an autopsy on the patient he was studying, he found that the patient’s brains had become enmeshed with what were later termed to be amyloid plaques and tangles. It is the formation of these plaques and tangles that causes the signs and symptoms of this disease.
The Alzheimer’s Association (AA) notes that this disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of all dementia cases, and is particularly a risk for patients who are 65 years of age or older. The disease begins with symptoms such as mild memory loss. However, as it advances, it brings with it more severe memory problems such as, difficulty talking, communicating and even performing activities of daily living (like eating, dressing, and going to the bathroom). Often, patients with moderate to severe forms of AD will have to be placed in a facility for the 24/7 care that they require.
Currently, there is no cure for AD. The FDA has approved four different drugs- Aricept, Exelon, Razadyne and Namenda- for treatment of the symptoms of this disease. However, they do not work for everyone and come with a variety of unwanted side effects that range from digestive problems (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation and loss of appetite) to mental problems like confusion.
New Treatment Brings New Hope
Because of the side effects of the medications currently used for AD, research is underway to look into other treatments for this disease. One new study, published recently in the journal Aging, has brought some excitement to the medical community- and new hope to Alzheimer’s patients and the ones that love them.
The study is on the small side, looking at just 10 patients suffering from age-related loss of cognitive function. However, as lead researcher Dale Breeden notes, the results are “unprecedented”. The patients in this study were treated with a holistic, 36-point program which included everything from medications and supplements to dietary restrictions, stimulation of the brain and exercises. After completing this program, testing showed a reversal of their neurological degeneration and scientists note that “patients who had had to discontinue work [due to their condition] were able to return to work and those struggling to work were able to improve their performance.” As an example, one man showing a shrinkage of the hippocampus went from the 17th percentile to the 75th percentile in hippocampal size after 10 months of treatment, according to MRIs performed before and after the study.
This multidisciplinary approach to neurological health is not the only exciting thing about this study. Scientists involved in this project also noted that this treatment was done on patients who have one or two copies of the APOE4 gene, which is involved in around 65% of Alzheimer’s cases. Currently, patients are not evaluated for this gene since doctors deem it unnecessary for this incurable disease, but researchers believe that in the future, APOE4 evaluation will be done in order to help identify patients at a genetic risk for AD and to help them get the early treatment they need to prevent this condition.
In short, Alzheimer’s disease is an incurable condition which has a devastating effect on patients, their families and society as a whole. Currently, the FDA-approved medications for AD treat symptoms without actually affecting a cure. That is why this study, though small, has given many hope for the future as researchers work towards a cure that will save patients and their families from the emotional and social impact of this disease.