Alzheimer's disease currently affects four million Americans, and that number is growing. According to the February issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource, the number of Alzheimer's cases is expected to triple over the next 20 years as our population ages. The good news is that this devastating and high-profile disease is receiving a lot of attention from the medical community, and researchers are making significant strides in detection, treatment and even prevention.
Alzheimer's is a progressive and incurable brain disorder that often leads to death within a decade of diagnosis. It typically appears after age 60 and is more common in women than in men. It is thought that women are more susceptible simply because they live longer than men, and risk increases with age.
It is impossible to definitively diagnose the disease without an autopsy, but researchers are using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the volume of certain brain regions that are affected by Alzheimer's. They hope to be able to predict who will get the disease years before the onset of symptoms.
Other advances in diagnosis include genetic research to identify mutations that may lead to Alzheimer's. Eventually, a blood test may accurately diagnose the disease at an early stage.
Numerous advances also have been made in Alzheimer's treatment. Among them:
* A group of drugs called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors seem to slow the onset of disease in 30 to 50 percent of people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's symptoms.
* Some research has indicated that estrogen replacement therapy may reduce the risk of developing the disease; although, it hasn't been shown to affect the course of Alzheimer's once it is diagnosed.
* Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids (such as ibuprofen and prednisone) may help reduce brain inflammation that may play a role in Alzheimer's.
* Antioxidants such as vitamin E may help prevent the brain-cell damage of Alzheimer's, thus slowing the progression of the disease.
* Ginkgo biloba, an herb that is touted as a memory aid, may stabilize or improve the quality of life for Alzheimer's patients.
Finally, a vaccine for Alzheimer's disease is in the works. It comes in the form of a nasal spray and was shown to reduce brain plaques (one of the telltale signs of Alzheimer's) in laboratory mice.
More information about Alzheimer's disease is available through the Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center at 800-438-4380 or www.alzheimers.org.