Hard fight ahead: Experts hope for rapid progress against Alzheimer's

July 25, 2011 By Alvin Powell, Harvard University
A Harvard School of Public Health and Alzheimer’s Europe survey was the focus of a forum that included Matthew Baumgart (from left), senior director of government affairs for the Alzheimer's Association, Adrian Ivinson, founding director of the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center, and Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at HSPH. Credit: Aubrey LaMedica/Harvard School of Public Health

Experts on Alzheimer’s disease expressed hope of rapid progress against the condition Friday (July 22) even as they acknowledged that there’s little medical science can do today to help patients.

The panel, which appeared online in a presentation of The Forum at Harvard School of Public Health, also discussed a new Harvard School of Public Health and Alzheimer’s Europe survey showing Alzheimer’s to be the number two health fear — behind cancer — in four countries. The survey, led by Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis, also showed that the vast majority of respondents would want to know they had the disease even though there is nothing physicians can do to treat it.

Blendon, who appeared at the event with Adrian Ivinson, founding director of the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center, and Matthew Baumgart, senior director of government affairs for the Alzheimer’s Association, said the survey also showed that most people mistakenly believe that there is a definitive test to determine whether one has the disease and that there are things physicians can do to slow the disease’s course.

In fact, panelists said, there is no single test to definitively identify the disease, especially before symptoms appear, and little doctors can do once a patient is diagnosed with it.

Alzheimer’s disease afflicts more than 5 million people in the United States alone, half of whom are undiagnosed. Getting older is the primary risk factor, with the disease usually beginning after age 60 and affecting the parts of the brain controlling thought, memory, and language. The number of Americans with the disease has doubled since 1980 and could reach 13.5 million by 2050, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The survey, released July 20, sampled the knowledge and attitudes of 2,678 people in five countries, the United States, France, Germany, Spain, and Poland. Though it showed that Alzheimer’s was the number two health fear in four countries, respondents in the fifth, Poland, ranked it third, behind cancer and heart disease.

Overall, respondents were acutely aware of the condition. More than 85 percent said they’d see a doctor if they were experiencing memory loss and confusion to determine if the cause was Alzheimer’s. The survey showed the disease’s reach: majorities in all countries know or have known someone with it and three in 10 had family members with the condition.

The survey showed that there is room for additional education, since just 40 percent were aware that Alzheimer’s is fatal.

Panelists discussed the usefulness of early testing, should a test become available. Baumgart said that even without treatment available, it has been shown that earlier diagnosis is helpful for patients, giving them time to get their affairs in order and participate in the decisions about their care. Early diagnosis also lessens stress on caregivers. In addition, Baumgart said, about a fourth of patients with memory problems and cognitive dysfunction don’t have Alzheimer’s, but instead a treatable condition, such as depression or a vitamin deficit.

By 2050, Baumgart said, Alzheimer’s spending in the United States is expected to rise from $183 billion today to $1 trillion, most of which will be paid through government Medicare and Medicaid programs. Given public concern, rising incidence, and growing cost, governments will be under increasing pressure to devote funding to Alzheimer’s research, panelists said.

Ivinson said significant progress has been made in the past decade and several avenues of research are waiting for funding to move ahead. Though recent research has been promising, the public’s expectation of results within five years — as shown by the survey — may be too optimistic, he said.

“There’s real reason for optimism today compared with 10 years ago. There are lots of avenues of inquiry wanting funding,” he said.

As treatments become available, the need for a reliable test that can detect the disease in its early stages will increase, Ivinson said. Alzheimer’s can damage the brain for 10 years before symptoms appear.

Explore further: Early-onset Alzheimer's not always associated with memory loss

Related Stories

Early-onset Alzheimer's not always associated with memory loss

May 19, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- In a recent study published in the journal Neurology, scientists say that individuals who develop early-onset Alzheimer's in middle age are at a high risk of being misdiagnosed because many of their initial ...

Falls may be early sign of Alzheimer's

July 18, 2011
Falls and balance problems may be early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis report July 17, 2011, at the Alzheimer’s Association International ...

International survey highlights great public desire to seek early diagnosis of Alzheimer's

July 20, 2011
Results of an international survey reveal that over 85% of respondents in the five countries surveyed say that if they were exhibiting confusion and memory loss, they would want to see a doctor to determine if the cause of ...

Alzheimer’s prevention better than a cure

July 14, 2011
In a new study published in Nature, Dr. Sam Gandy from Mount Sinai Medical Center argues that finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease may be near impossible and that the best hope for researchers is to focus on prevention, ...

Recommended for you

Creation of synthetic horsepox virus could lead to more effective smallpox vaccine

January 19, 2018
UAlberta researchers created a new synthetic virus that could lead to the development of a more effective vaccine against smallpox. The discovery demonstrates how techniques based on the use of synthetic DNA can be used to ...

Study ends debate over role of steroids in treating septic shock

January 19, 2018
The results from the largest ever study of septic shock could improve treatment for critically ill patients and save health systems worldwide hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

New approach could help curtail hospitalizations due to influenza infection

January 18, 2018
More than 700,000 Americans were hospitalized due to illnesses associated with the seasonal flu during the 2014-15 flu season, according to federal estimates. A radical new approach to vaccine development at UCLA may help ...

Zika virus damages placenta, which may explain malformed babies

January 18, 2018
Though the Zika virus is widely known for a recent outbreak that caused children to be born with microencephaly, or having a small head, and other malformations, scientists have struggled to explain how the virus affects ...

Certain flu virus mutations may compensate for fitness costs of other mutations

January 18, 2018
Seasonal flu viruses continually undergo mutations that help them evade the human immune system, but some of these mutations can reduce a virus's potency. According to new research published in PLOS Pathogens, certain mutations ...

Study reveals how MRSA infection compromises lymphatic function

January 17, 2018
Infections of the skin or other soft tissues with the hard-to-treat MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria appear to permanently compromise the lymphatic system, which is crucial to immune system function. ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

hush1
not rated yet Jul 26, 2011
Get rid of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security first. Those avenues of inquiry want funding. That's a cure that pays for the future cure found. No more patients to cure with those cuts? Preemptive 'medicine'.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.