Alzheimer's Prevention as Elusive as Disease Itself

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), August 29, 2011 | Go to article overview

Alzheimer's Prevention as Elusive as Disease Itself


Byline: Anita Creamer Sacramento Bee

Virginia Stone is worried: Alzheimer's disease seems to run in her family. Her 80-year-old mother, Kazue Storey, was diagnosed seven years ago, and Story's mother died of the disease in the 1970s.

So Stone, 53, watches her diet, and she works out several times a week. She's cut out almost all caffeine; she works puzzles like Sudoku and crosswords.

Her approach sounds like common sense. In fact, many Alzheimer's specialists tell their patients that what is good for the heart -- a healthy weight, daily exercise, no smoking, lots of fruits and vegetables, a network of social connections -- is also good for the brain.

But will a healthy lifestyle help prevent Alzheimer's disease, or at least delay its onset?

As the number of Alzheimer's cases in the U.S. continues to climb, such questions have taken on an urgent feel. The Alzheimer's diagnosis is now shared by 5.4 million Americans, and that number is expected to rise to 16 million by midcentury.

The Alzheimer's Association calls the illness "the defining disease of baby boomers." For them, it's crucial to know whether lifestyle changes will make a difference. But the answer, like so much related to Alzheimer's, is hard to pin down definitively.

Strictly speaking, experts say, the only known risk factor for Alzheimer's is old age. Marked by the death of brain tissue and the resulting erosion of memory and ability to function, the disease is the nation's sixth-leading cause of death and thought to be responsible for 80 percent of dementia cases.

There is no cure, although one medication, Aricept, has been found to delay symptoms in some patients for a year or two.

Unfortunately, research on Alzheimer's -- unlike research on other major killers, such as cancer and heart disease -- remains in its infancy.

Today, scientists know that Alzheimer's begins killing brain cells 10 years or longer before forgetfulness, confusion and other early symptoms appear. By the time memory problems start, the disease is already consuming the brain.

Prevention, or simply finding ways to keep symptoms at bay for another decade into old age, would be a major breakthrough for older adults.

A new UC San Francisco study -- using a sophisticated mathematical model to analyze many years' worth of observational data about the influence of lifestyle on Alzheimer's -- suggests that about half the world's known cases of the disease could be attributable to seven modifiable risk factors. …

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