By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Rising rates of Alzheimer’s lead to frantic search for cure

by in Fitness & Wellbeing, Medicine, Research.

Photograph of Mirella taking care of her husband Luigi, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, in Rome, on June 1, 2010

Mirella taking care of her husband Luigi, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease (REUTERS/Fausto Podavini)

The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults will triple by 2050 as the population ages, according to research published earlier this month. Public health experts are concerned that the U.S. healthcare system will be unable to keep up with the expense of caring for Alzheimer’s patients as the number of cases increases.

Almost five million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  Researchers estimate that the number will rise to 13.8 million over the next four decades, based on extrapolations from the 2010 census. The figures were reported in the journal Neurology. Without a cure for the disease, costs will continue to rise as people live longer, reaching $1.1 trillion in 2050, by some measures.

Last year, the Obama administration diverted additional funds to Alzheimer’s research, in the hope that scientists can find a cure by 2025.  Those grants may be in danger, however, as funding for the National Institutes of Health is set to be dramatically curtailed when the budget sequester hits in March.

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease affecting mainly people over 65. It often begins with memory loss and progresses until people are wholly unable to care for themselves.  Medications can address some of the symptoms of the disease, but there are currently no treatments that halt or reverse its march. Researchers believe it may be related to the buildup of plaques or tangles of protein in the brain.

While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown, we can rule out one mechanism – it is not contagious.  Around the same time as the census projections were released, a separate team of researchers reported that children who were injected with growth hormones from the bodies of cadavers with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, another degenerative brain disease, were no more likely to develop either disease than the general population.  The results were published in JAMA Neurology.

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration announced changes to its clinical trial guidelines that would allow pharmaceutical companies to test Alzheimer’s medications on patients at earlier stages in the disease.  There is some evidence that early interventions may be effective in treating patients with Alzheimer’s who have not yet suffered irreversible brain damage.  The prospect of successful treatment for Alzheimer’s before the symptoms become severe is all the more reason not to slash funding for preventive care.