Experts Plan Strategies For Onslaught of Alzheimer’s

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As baby boomers age, the cost, both emotional and monetary, of a flood of Alzheimer’s disease looms as one of the nation’s biggest public-health problems.

The University of Pennsylvania’s medical and nursing schools hosted a conference Thursday and Friday that asked 50 national and international dementia experts to set priorities for future research and treatment.

Among the key needs the group identified were:

  • Better data on how normal and diseased brains age.
  • Better tests to alert doctors to problems before brains are irreparably damaged.
  • More potential targets for medications.
  • A treatment system that gives patients one-stop shopping for care, support, and access to research.

They realized, they said, they’d have to do all that without much more money.

Ronald Peterson, director of the Mayo Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and John Trojanowski, codirector of Penn’s Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, said they hoped the group could influence priorities for the National Alzheimer’s Project Act. The year-old program is to create a national strategic plan for combating Alzheimer’s.

“I think Alzheimer’s disease and dementia due to other causes are a huge public-health threat to our health system, to our economy, to the global economy,” Trojanowski said, “and this has been an extremely important meeting . . . to come up with plans and recommendations to change the trajectory of the disease and to create a world without Alzheimer’s disease.”

Experts Plan Alzheimer's Strategies

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Alzheimer’s is a progressive, fatal brain disease that affects memory and eventually renders victims helpless. Its physical hallmarks are abnormal clumps of a protein called amyloid and tangles of tau. More than five million Americans have it.

Trojanowski said it was the only one of this country’s top 10 diseases for which there was no treatment that could attack the disease process. There are drugs that temporarily reduce symptoms.

Results of trials of two drugs meant to reduce amyloid in the brain are expected in the next three to six months, he said. Drugs that affect tau are farther back in the pipeline.

Should any of those drugs prove effective, demand will jump for biomarkers, or physical tests, that can identify people with Alzheimer’s before they are significantly disabled. Researchers have made great progress in developing brain-imaging tests and others that measure substances in spinal fluid. But experts at the meeting said better tests, standardized procedures, and clear rules about who was qualified to use the tests were needed. Several cited the need for laws to protect people who tested positive from discrimination by insurers or employers.

The scientists want a registry of people who have been tested to track how they change and suggested getting more baseline information about mental performance from unrelated clinical trials that recruit older patients.

In the absence of a good treatment, the experts stressed that people could reduce their risk for dementia by exercising and keeping their weights down.

“Healthy lifestyles make a huge difference in cognitive health,” said Mary Naylor, a professor of gerontology in Penn’s nursing school, who was one of the conference organizers.

Citation: Burling, Stacey. “Experts plan strategies for onslaught of Alzheimer’s.” Philadelphia Inquirer.

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