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Alzheimer’s Prevention or a Cure?

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Recently PBS aired a program on Alzheimer’s research that I watched with great interest. As a lecturer and author, I’ve been asked for years if there will ever be a cure or a way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease? My answer is always short and not so sweet; prevent? yes, cure? no. The title of the program was “Alzheimer’s-Can It Be Stopped?” Not cured, stopped. Just so we all understand each other, I’ll remind you that I am not a clinician. I certainly understand the clinical side of this insidious disease as I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with researchers, geriatric psychiatrists, geneticists and neurologists, including a couple that were featured in this PBS Program.

One of the things I think is so valuable about a quality documentary like this is that you’re going to gain insight into this illness directly from those that are in the trenches as caregivers or sufferers.

Hearing someone struggling with this disease say things like “I forget and I can’t trust what I remember” or when asked, “how many children do you have?” they answer ” I don’t know, it’s just not in there” is sobering to say the least; and it only gets worse.

What has come from all the research over the years is the established fact that the amyloid plaques and neurofibulary tangles are the diagnostic signal of Alzheimer’s. What many don’t know is that when you start to notice some of those tell tale early signs, it’s not a new development as the pathology has been at work for up to twenty years. Believe it or not, that’s the good news. Tests can reveal the plaques and tangles in patients in their forties or fifties but you may not notice any symptoms for another 20 years or so. Therefore, if scientists can find a way to reduce the dangerous amyloid plaques then possibly they can prevent the disease or at least reduce it’s impact; not cure it. In the PBS program, they describe amyloid as the “trigger” as it attacks the outside of the brains neurons and the tau protein that makes up the tangles as the “bullet” as it attacks the neurons from the inside.

There are a number of research companies working on trying find ways to reduce the plaques in the brain and they discussed some rather encouraging results of their trials but there’s a long way to go. Even the researchers referred to the word “cure” as a strong word and I think is was also telling that the word “cured” was used only once during the entire program. One of the most successful trials to date won’t be completed until 2020 and during that time these dedicated scientists will be in a constant learning curve. It’s easy to be an impatient caregiver but if anything takes time, it’s drug trials. We need to remember that the purpose of a drug trial is to learn. Will this drug cause swelling of the brain? Will this drug cause death? How severe will any and all side effects be?

I first became a student of this illness and its effects over 15 years ago. Whenever the question of “when will there be a cure or a way to prevent Alzheimer’s?” came up, the answer across the board was always “in about 10 years.” As I said, that was 15 years ago and at this writing there is nothing imminent on the horizon. I know for a fact, that in the last 15 years, science has had more than it’s fair share of failures and rather than get frustrated on behalf of all of those caregivers and their afflicted loved ones, I remain optimistic. The impact of Alzheimer’s is too big to ignore and besides I’m reminded of that famous saying of Thomas Edison. “I didn’t fail, I just learned a thousand ways to do it wrong.”