Nov. 14, 2017 | The head of the world’s leading voluntary health association in Alzheimer’s care, support and research had a message for a STOP Alzheimer’s education forum: stay the course.
Several dozen people filled the Jo Ellen Ford Auditorium at the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging on Oct. 30 to hear Harry Johns, president and CEO of Alzheimer’s Association, and UAMS researchers discuss the latest developments in the fight against the disease.
The Strategies Toward Overcoming and Preventing (STOP) Alzheimer’s Campaign is a UAMS-created program to raise funds for awareness about the disease and support for Alzheimer’s disease research at the Institute.
The audience also heard from Jeanne Wei, M.D., Ph.D., executive director of the institute; Sue Griffin, Ph.D., professor and vice chairman for research in the Donald W. Reynolds Department of Geriatrics in the UAMS College of Medicine; and Mark Pippenger, M.D., behavioral neurologist in the institute’s Walker Memory Center and associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Neurology.
Speakers took turns answering questions in an intimate, town hall-type setting.
One audience member asked about the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia. Pippenger explained that this can be a confusing question not only for families and caregivers, but also for many doctors. They’re not different diseases, he said, just different types of terms: dementia refers to the condition where memory and thinking are declining to the point of causing problems functioning, and it isn’t a specific disease.
“Dementia has many different causes, but the most common is Alzheimer disease, so the term dementia refers to the symptoms, and the term Alzheimer disease refers to the biggest cause of dementia,” Pippenger said.
Pippenger said he is optimistic about where Alzheimer’s research is headed.
“If we diagnose somebody in the clinic with Alzheimer disease, that usually means that they have dementia,” Pippenger said. “But we are now getting to the point where we will be able to diagnose the disease before the dementia actually occurs. We’re really hopeful about that.”
Wei introduced Griffin as “a lone voice in the wilderness long before anybody appreciated the nature of the problem.” Griffin, who pioneered a shift in understanding of the early events that drive the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions, received the Alzheimer’s Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award last year.
Griffin said that obesity and diabetes are two risk factors for Alzheimer’s “that we can do something about.” That means focusing more on exercise and nutrition. “It’s okay if you didn’t do it when you were 20 or 30 – it’s not too late,” she said. “Try it now.”
Griffin introduced Johns by praising his efforts with the federal government.
“Harry has done so much for each one of us here at UAMS in research, and across this country,” Griffin said. “Harry is the one who went down to Congress and said that this is what Alzheimer’s is costing us, and that it’s a looming economic problem.”
Approximately 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease today, and that number is expected to triple by 2050, Johns said. “Today, we estimate that the cost of care alone is $259 billion per year in America – and that will go up to $1.1 trillion per year in 2050,” he said.
“Alzheimer’s is the costliest disease in America,” Johns said.
The Alzheimer’s Association has seen federal appropriations increase by $1.4 billion over the past several years, but Alzheimer’s research remains drastically underfunded, Johns said. “We simply cannot afford $1.1 trillion in a single year as costs,” he said.
Based upon data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in America, and that number is greatly underestimated, Johns said.
Citing a study from Rush University in Chicago, Johns said that approximately half a million people each year die, at least in some part, as a result of Alzheimer’s. That makes Alzheimer death rates comparable to those for heart disease and cancer, America’s two biggest killers.
Alzheimer’s research has recently shifted towards examining how much of an effect lifestyle changes have on mitigating risk factors for the disease. “There are all kinds of realities in life that we don’t have to accept as the ongoing reality – if we act,” Johns said.
In July, the Alzheimer’s Association launched the US POINTER Study, which features physical exercise, nutritional counseling and modification, cognitive and social stimulation, and improved self-management of medical conditions.
This builds on the Finnish FINGER Study, which Johns called “the gold standard” in clinical studies. That study, published in 2015, found that the risks of cognitive decline can be reduced by living a healthy lifestyle.
“The idea ultimately would be to intervene before the symptoms,” Johns said. “We are now progressing at a faster rate toward what will be answers to this disease. We are not there yet, but we are making rapid progress.”