March 11, 2014
Progress In The Battle Against Alzheimer’s
There will be few people who go through life without eventually having direct experience of the devastation that Alzheimer’s Disease can cause. For sufferers and supporters alike it is a life-changing experience. It is something I have witnessed myself in several family members and like everyone else in that position it has become an illness to fear. Yet a couple of recent news items give encouragement that the constant research into the effects and treatment of Alzheimer’s are moving us towards greater understanding and a little more hope.
Let’s look at the scale of the problem first. Studies by Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) reveal that over 44 million people suffer from this illness worldwide as of 2013. They project that this will increase to 75.6 million by 2030 and 135 million by 2050 and that the general increase in life expectancy will only increase the problem. With 7.7 million new cases each year, they estimate that there is one new case somewhere in the world every 4 seconds. They point out that, in addition to the personal cost to quality of life, there is a massive economic cost with a reduction of one per cent to global GDP. To put this in perspective, they use telling analogies – “If dementia care were a country, it would be the world’s 18th largest economy” and, based on turnover, would be the world’s largest business, bigger than Walmart and Exxon Mobil. The global economic consequences will not concern those directly affected as they struggle to cope but in the great scheme of things it may be a key driver in securing funding for care and research.
So every bit of good news in the battle against Alzheimer’s is very welcome. Research just published in Nature Magazine has proposed that a new blood test procedure could predict the probability of the onset of Alzheimer’s in the 3 years following the test with a 90 per cent degree of accuracy. They found 10 blood fats or lipids that appear to be “markers” for later development of dementia. Earlier diagnosis is essential as it is often 10 to 15 years between the actual onset of dementia and the development of recognizable symptoms. This is commonly cited as one reason why drug treatments are often ineffective – by the time they are used it is simply too late. The results are so encouraging that the study’s authors are absolutely right in claiming that these preliminary findings show the need for full-scale research.
In other news, a study by Professor Kirk Erickson and his team at Pittsburgh University has suggested that taking regular brisk walks can reduce the shrinking of the brain and loss of mental skills associated with Alzheimer’s. By looking at the brain sizes of men and women aged between 60 and 80, they found that walking three times a week increased the size of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus areas of the brain by two to three percent. These are the areas of the brain linked to memory and planning skills. The researchers described the changes as like “reversing the age clock by one to two years.” The participants performed better in spatial memory tests and reported feeling more alert – “as if the fog has lifted.” While the benefits may only be a delay in or slowing down of dementia symptoms, every step towards dealing with this growing problem has to be more than welcome. As the researchers say, it is no magic bullet cure – there isn’t one – so let’s see these two pieces of news as taking us that little bit further towards a better future.
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