Researchers are slowly lifting the veil of mystery surrounding Alzheimer’s disease, the incurable illness that afflicts 10 percent of people at age 65 and nearly half of those ages 85 and older. An estimated four and a half million Americans, mostly women, currently suffer from this form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. But scientists are making significant progress in understanding how to treat and even control this degenerative brain condition.
Alzheimer’s disease causes plaque to invade and eventually shut off nerve cells in the brain. It also causes “tangles” within neurons, the brain’s messengers, causing them to collapse. As a result, the brain slowly stops memorizing, recalling and processing information. Both genetic and environmental causes appear to trigger the onset of the disease in ways still not understood.
Certain drugs have shown promise neutralizing beta-amyloid proteins. In a German study, the cholesterol-reducer simvastatin slowed amyloid production in guinea pigs. And isoflavones, estrogen-like compounds found in soy, have been shown to suppress amyloid accumulations. Also making news:
- Memantine, a German drug, received FDA approval in October 2003 for treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. Marketed in the U.S. under the brand name Namenda, it’s thought to work by helping to regulate a brain chemical that plays a major role in memory and learning.
- The Nun Study, a pioneering, long-term study of 678 elderly School Sisters of Notre Dame in Minnesota, is headed by University of Kentucky epidemiologist David Snowden. This ongoing study has produced new understandings about preventing Alzheimer’s, such as the importance of education and being mentally active throughout life and the increased risk of Alzheimer’s following a stroke or a blow to the head. In addition, researchers are seeking to answer whether a high-folate diet might help prevent the disease.