Thu Jul 22, 2004
By Jon Hurdle
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A cure for Alzheimer's disease is unlikely in the near future, but big advances are coming soon in the treatment and prevention of the fatal brain illness, a leading researcher said on Thursday.
Researchers have made strides in learning about causes and possible therapies, and just in time, too, as the burden of Alzheimer's threatens Medicare, said Dr. William Thies, vice president for medical and scientific affairs at the Alzheimer's Association.
"We will see drastic improvements in ways of treating and preventing the disease," Thies said in an interview at the end of an international Alzheimer's conference. "It might be three, five, seven, 10 or 12 years away -- something like that."
Thies said researchers have made a "staggering amount" of progress on finding causes, developing medications that have the potential to treat it, and identifying preventive steps, particularly lifestyle changes that may delay the onset of the brain-wasting disease.
Research presented at the conference suggests, for example, that risk factors for heart disease may also lead to dementia. A study in Sweden and Finland found that participants who were obese in middle age were twice as likely to develop dementia in later life.
Another study from Harvard Medical School found that women who ate vegetables such as spinach and broccoli in middle age preserved more of their cognitive abilities as they entered their 70s.
Drug trials presented to the conference appear to show that beta-amyloid, the abnormal protein that is a prime suspect as the cause of Alzheimer's, can be broken down in the brain using medication, slowing the process of cognitive decline.
16 MILLION CASES
Such preventive measures could help cut the number of Alzheimer's cases in the United States, which is expected to hit 16 million by the middle of this century -- almost four times the current number -- as the baby boom generation ages and lives longer.
That number could be even greater because of the higher incidence of Alzheimer's in the U.S. black and Hispanic populations, which are growing faster than the white population, Thies said.
The financial burden of treating the expected increase in Alzheimer's sufferers threatens to bankrupt the U.S. health care system, Thies said. Alzheimer's patients often have other illnesses, and the cost of treatment to Medicare -- the state-federal health insurance system for the elderly -- averages $13,207 per patient per year.
That amount is more than three times the average for other Medicare patients, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Seeking to avert a crisis, the association is asking for a 32 percent increase in federal research funding, to $1 billion a year.
The association's campaign have been helped by the Alzheimer's-related death of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whose widow Nancy has called for more government support to fight the disease.
"Congress would like to recognize the contribution of Mr. Reagan, and rather than putting his face on a $20 bill, funding to find a cure for this awful disease would be the right decision," Thies said.