The Obama administration has tasked the science community with finding some effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. Experts consider the quest as ambitious. Still, health advocates applaud the government’s initiative, calling it an important step toward prevention, delay and, eventually, cure of the disorder.

 

Education first

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most-feared health conditions among baby boomers, second only to cancer, according to a survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association and the Harvard School of Public Health, which was first published at an international conference in Paris, France, last year. 

However, because of stigma and misinformation about Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, too many cases still remain undiagnosed. As a first step, the government has announced a major campaign to better educate both the medical community and the public at large about the disease.

“Alzheimer’s is the most significant social and health crisis of the 21st century,” said Dr. William Thies, the chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association. “The overwhelming numbers of people whose lives will be altered by the disease — combined with the staggering economic burden on families and nations — make Alzheimer’s the defining disease of this generation. 

“However, if governments act urgently to develop national research and care strategies with appropriate smart investments, the impact of Alzheimer’s and dementia can be managed,” he added.

Currently, more than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementias, a toll that is expected to triple by 2050. The numbers may be much higher yet because as many as half of those affected have not been formally diagnosed. According to the American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF), almost half a million new cases are added annually. More than 80,000 patients die from the disease every year, making Alzheimer’s the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.

The annual costs for treatments and care of Alzheimer’s patients in the United States amounted to approximately $183 billion in 2011; they are expected to reach more than $1 trillion dollars by 2050. 

The vast majority of people with Alzheimer’s receive home care by relatives, which is not covered by Medicare and most health insurance plans. For this reason, the new government initiative also aims at providing some form of relief for overwhelmed families who carry the burden of caring for loved ones, although the details hereto are still unclear.

 

No available treatments

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. The disease worsens as it progresses and leads to death within four to seven years on average, although 20 years are not unheard of. It was first described in 1906 by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer and was named after him.

Early symptoms are often overlooked or misinterpreted as age- or stress-related phenomena, such as forgetfulness or confusion. Since the disease affects each individual differently, predicting its course is difficult. 

What causes Alzheimer’s in the first place is not yet fully understood. Currently, available treatments can only help with its symptomatic effects but are not able to halt or reverse progression. 

Some have suggested that diet, exercise and mental stimulation can have a positive impact; however, there is no clinically proven evidence that such measures have a real effect in terms of prevention. 

Still, most experts agree that healthy diet and lifestyle choices are the best weapons we currently have against all age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Visit her website: timigustafson.com.