By Ron D. Stollings, MD, FACP
New studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2016 in Toronto, Canada, show potential new ways to predict and diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, as well as possible ways to slow cognitive decline, including new clinical trial results on investigational Alzheimer’s therapies. As an internal medicine physician I care for some of the 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease. I know firsthand how critical these studies and findings are to improving quality of life for individuals living with dementia, as well as finding ways to prevent people from ever developing it.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2016 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, an estimated 37,000 people age 65 and older in West Virginia are living with Alzheimer’s, and every 66 seconds, someone else in the United States develops the disease. By 2050, the total number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s could reach more than 13 million. Also by 2050, Alzheimer’s care will cost the U.S. more than $1 trillion each year – creating a huge strain on the health care system, families and federal and state budgets. There is, fortunately, a pipeline of experimental therapies that have the potential to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and perhaps even prevent the disease.
The clinical trial data presented at AAIC this year is particularly encouraging because it impacts many areas of Alzheimer’s disease research. It includes not only new findings on potential drug therapies, but also early studies investigating exciting lifestyle and non-pharma interventions for the future. It is very promising to see advances in therapies for more effective treatment and prevention, as well as new symptomatic therapies for those who currently live with Alzheimer’s and other dementias (and the millions more who will get it until we have effective prevention).
In regard to prevention, a major story emerging out of AAIC this year is how lifestyle choices can be tied to a reduction in risk for developing Alzheimer’s or dementia. One study shows people whose work requires complex thinking and social interaction may be better able to withstand the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Another study of note suggests that having a mentally stimulating lifestyle and remaining socially engaged may offset the negative effects of a poor-quality Western diet that can contribute to cognitive decline. Additionally, two studies from AAIC 2016 point to advances in detection of Alzheimer’s.
Up until this point it has been very frustrating for primary care providers like me as there is little we could do for patients once an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis was made. I have always and continue to appreciate family and friends who provide care for loved ones in their home. At AAIC numerous studies point to the importance of providing education for family caregivers and to make them aware of valuable community resources. Here in West Virginia we are fortunate to have the Alzheimer’s Association, West Virginia Chapter, AARP, the West Virginia Bureau of Senior Services, and West Virginia CARES about Families Living with Dementia among others who are there to assist family caregivers.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only cause in the top 10 without a way to prevent, cure or slow its progression. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 2016 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report also found that, from 2000-2013, the number of Alzheimer’s deaths increased 71 percent, while deaths from other major diseases decreased.
Additional research is vital in order to find effective treatment and prevention for Alzheimer’s disease. For millions of Americans and thousands of West Virginias living with dementia and their family caregivers better models of care and a cure for Alzheimer’s disease cannot come soon enough.
Dr. Stollings is an internal medicine physician who has been in private practice at Madison Medical Group for 31 years. Since 2006 he continues to serve as a West Virginia State Senator representing the 7th Senatorial District.