The Alzheimer’s Association: A look back at 2016 and a look ahead at 2017
The quick facts about Alzheimer’s Disease are staggering. And the numbers will only increase. The Alzheimer’s Association predicts that by mid-century, someone in the U.S. will develop the disease every 33 seconds.
Even scarier is that Alzheimer’s is the only disease among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. that can’t be prevented, cured, or even slowed. It’s one of the costliest chronic diseases to our society, and its impact on families and caregivers is devastating.
The Association – whose slogan is “the brains behind saving yours” – is committed to Alzheimer’s care, support, and research. To find out about the latest in research and developments, WomensHealth.com talked with Heather Snyder, Ph.D., Senior Director, Medical & Scientific Operations for the Alzheimer’s Association.
WomensHealth.com: Tell us about 2016. What research is the Alzheimer’s Association excited about?
Alzheimer’s Association: This is a very exciting time in Alzheimer’s disease research. We are leading a global effort to spark transformational breakthroughs toward earlier diagnosis, improved treatments, and prevent the symptoms of Alzheimer’s completely.
Alzheimer’s researchers are developing simpler tests and new technologies to identify risk factors and detect signs of the disease earlier. For example, at the Alzheimer’s Association International Research Conference 2016 this past July, we learned the results of two studies suggesting smell and eye tests may be able to detect memory decline and dementia.
Similarly, advances in imaging technology are providing the ability to see signs of Alzheimer’s in the brains of living people – something we weren’t able to do a little more than a decade ago. With an amyloid positron emission topography (PET) scan, we can visualize the accumulation of amyloid brain plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
The Alzheimer’s Association is also funding a number of investigators to add tau PET imaging to their studies. Tau tangles are another hallmark brain change of Alzheimer’s; buildup of these tangles tracks closely with cognitive decline. The ability to image tau in the brain, in conjunction with amyloid imaging, could potentially enable diagnosis before symptoms appear.
At the same time, researchers are looking for ways to slow or stop the disease at this early stage. For example, there are five ongoing large-scale prevention studies looking for ways to prevent Alzheimer’s before symptoms occur; the Alzheimer’s Association is providing funding to three of them. These are long-term studies but we hope to see meaningful results within the next three to five years. Additionally, more than 200 clinical trials of investigational therapies and diagnostic procedures for Alzheimer’s and dementia are currently underway at companies and academic research centers around the world.
Brain inflammation is an emerging target for Alzheimer’s therapy. Investigations in this area are part of the Alzheimer’s Association Part the Cloud Initiative, which funds research exploring the role and timing of neuroinflammation and immune responses in brain changes associated with the disease.
WH: What new therapies or drugs are available that our readers should know about?
Alz. Assoc: For reducing the risk of cognitive decline as we age, the best evidence right now is for a combination of regular physical activity, mental stimulation and a healthy diet. Other lifestyle aspects that may contribute to healthy brain aging are being socially active, and not smoking. Based on a thorough review of published research, the Alzheimer’s Association created 10 Ways to Love Your Brain, which are lifestyle habits that may reduce the risk of cognitive decline. You can find them at www.alz.org/10Ways.
For Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s, there are five prescription medications approved to treat symptoms. These, however, are effective in only some people and for a limited period of time. Finding better treatments and prevention strategies is a priority for the Alzheimer’s Association in funding research.
WH: What continues to be the biggest challenges to those working in the Alzheimer’s research field?
Alz. Assoc: Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, likely caused by a number of factors. Finding new and more-effective therapies require fresh and innovative approaches. In early 2017, the Alzheimer’s Association will announce its first grants in pursuit of combination therapies for Alzheimer’s. Attacking two or more disease points simultaneously has the potential to be more effective than targeting them individually. Combination therapy has been effective in treating many complex conditions, such as heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and cancer.
Recruiting and retaining trial participants is one of the greatest obstacles to developing new treatments for Alzheimer’s. To connect individuals living with Alzheimer’s, healthy volunteers, and caregivers with current clinical studies, the Alzheimer’s Association created TrialMatch, a free clinical studies matching service. Visit www.alz.org/trialmatch for more information.
WH: What support is available to individuals and families who are living with Alzheimer’s?
Alz. Assoc: Alzheimer’s can become anyone’s reality – and anyone can become a caregiver. The Alzheimer’s Association is the center for help and hope, offering a number of resources online, in person and on the phone. These include:
- A professionally staffed 24/7 Helpline (800.272.3900) that offers information and advice to more than 310,000 callers each year and provides interpretation services in over 200 languages.
- Support groups for individuals living with Alzheimer’s and their families offered by more than 80 Alzheimer’s Association chapters across the country.
- Referrals to education programs, respite, and community resources.
- Care consultation to help families create a care plan and overcome obstacles.
- Education about Alzheimer’s and the changes that occur throughout the disease.
- Alzheimer’s Navigator, where individuals can map out a plan to approach the disease.
- ALZConnected online message boards with more than 50,000 members who share their thoughts, questions and ideas with each other 24 hours a day.
More resources are available through the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregiver Center at www.alz.org/care.
WH: What goals does the Association have for 2017?
Alz. Assoc: Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease in America, costing an estimated $236 billion in 2016. According to the Alzheimer’s Association 2016 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, by mid-century, the number of people with the disease is set to nearly triple, and the costs of the disease are projected to more than quadruple. Allowing this outlook to become the reality is unacceptable and economically unsustainable. To change the trajectory, we must accelerate the process of better understanding, treating and preventing Alzheimer’s, and that requires more resources.
Federal Alzheimer’s research funding received a historic $350 million increase at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for FY 2016. The Alzheimer’s Association is advocating for an additional $400 million for the FY 2017 budget, which the new congress will consider in 2017. If signed into law, Alzheimer’s research funding would reach an important milestone – passing the halfway mark toward the $2 billion annually that experts recommend to meet the first goal of the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease – to prevent and effectively treat the disease by 2025.
Other critical policy goals include advancing care-focused legislation, such as the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (PCHETA). Palliative and hospice care – with a focus on managing and easing symptoms and reducing pain and stress – can improve both the quality of care and quality of life for those with advanced dementia. PCHETA would ensure an adequate, well-trained palliative care workforce through training, education and awareness, and enhanced research.
You can get involved as an advocate for the Alzheimer’s cause at www.alz.org/advocacy.
WH: What would you like female readers to know about the Alzheimer’s Association that you haven’t addressed?
Alz. Assoc: Women are at the epicenter of Alzheimer’s disease. Nearly two-thirds of the more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association 2016 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. In fact, a woman in her sixties is about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as breast cancer in her lifetime.
There is evidence suggesting there are distinct biological and genetic contributions impacting how Alzheimer’s disease develops and progresses in women. Understanding these differences may be key to devising new, more effective strategies for treatment, prevention and diagnosis. In July 2016, the Alzheimer’s Association launched a new funding initiative – the Sex and Gender in Alzheimer’s Research Grants (SAGA) – to fill these knowledge gaps. For example, one of the SAGA-funded projects, led by Roberta Brinton, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona Health Sciences, will look at the influence of estrogen loss and genetic risk for Alzheimer’s on brain health. Dr. Brinton’s work is based on the theory that puberty, pregnancy and menopause are major reproductive and hormonal transitions that affect important connections in the brain.
Despite a historical lack of parity and gender equality in science, Dr. Brinton and other women are at the forefront in the fight against Alzheimer’s. For example, Sue Griffin, Ph.D., of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, is a pioneer in uncovering and understanding brain inflammation in Alzheimer’s. Reisa Sperling, M.D., M.M.Sc., of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is the primary investigator for the Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s Disease trial, one of the ongoing, large-scale Alzheimer’s prevention studies.
Currently, women make up more than half of the Alzheimer’s Association Medical and Scientific Advisory Council, holding eight of the council’s 15 positions.
But you don’t have to be a researcher to make a difference. One way to make a real change is to join the Alzheimer’s Association My Brain movement, which calls on 1 million women to use their amazing brains to help wipe out this disease, and provides knowledge and tools to advocate for a substantial increase in Alzheimer’s research funding. The MyBrain movement is a key component of the Alzheimer’s Association Women’s Initiative. The broader initiative highlights the multiple and disproportionate effects of Alzheimer’s on women as caregivers, advocates and people living with this disease. Learn more at www.alz.org/mybrain.