In the last few years alone, billions of dollars have been spent in ending cancer. We know the importance and urgency of achieving this goal. We accept and support it. What we're not so aware of and committed to is the equally vital need to find effective treatment for another devastating disease: Alzheimer's. It kills more people each year than breast and prostate cancer combined. Multiple trials have failed to find drugs that prevent, reverse or delay the disease. According to the Alzheimer's Association, a leading voluntary healthcare organization in Alzheimer's care and research, in 2019 health care costs for Alzheimer's disease and other dementias are estimated at $ 290 billion. If no cure or effective treatment is found by 2050, those costs could go up to $ 1.1 trillion. Currently, approximately 5.8 million Americans live with Alzheimer's disease. Every 65 seconds, someone in the United States develops the disease. By 2050, this number is expected to grow to nearly 14 million.
Some good news to tackle the disease arrived last month at the Alzheimer's Association's International Conference, where scientists revealed they were completing a long-sought goal: a blood test to study people for possible signs of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. A small drop of blood may be sufficient to predict Alzheimer's occurrence and facilitate better care and preventative measures. There will be nothing revolutionary.
As noted in a report by the Associated Press, doctors are desperate for something to use during routine examinations that evaluate the symptoms of dementia in order to effectively evaluate those who need more extensive tests. At the conference, half a dozen research groups gave new results to experimental tests to provide such a tool. A study published last year by researchers in Japan correctly identified 92 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease and correctly excluded 85 percent who did not have it. There was an overall accuracy rate of 88 percent.
To date, dozens of hopes for treatment have failed miserably in clinical trials. Part of the problem is thought to be that people have been involved in attempts after too much brain damage. In addition, too many people have had health problems other than Alzheimer's disease. The diagnosis of this disease traditionally depends on the search for visible Alzheimer's symptoms. The disease is well developed at this stage. Doctors hope a blood test can get the right people into research. This simple test can provide people with the much needed warning system decades before the onset of the disease.
It is speculated that blood tests will soon begin to be used to select people for federal funding and research. Before we get too excited, it should be noted that even in quick steps, such screening studies can be as long as three years. Medical science remains uncertain about exactly how Alzheimer's begins and develops. The abnormal levels of some proteins seem to play a big role. Currently, expensive and invasive brain scans and complex spinal fluid extractions are the tools to measure the levels of these proteins. Both procedures are too expensive, problematic and impractical for regular medical check-ups.
These procedures also present other problems. Shortly after the Positron Emission Brain (PET) samples were made available in 2013, Medicare officials found that they lacked evidence of its health benefits. As a result, Medicare does not cover significant scanning costs; and according to the Alzheimer's Association, private insurers don't do both.
As public knowledge rises to the fact that brain damage from Alzheimer's disease begins years before people develop symptoms, so is the concern that anxious patients and their families may begin turning to a PET scan to find out if they have these biological markers. A study by the Associated Press last year found that most Americans would like to know if they have a disease-related gene, even if it is incurable.
Here's the thing: These indicator proteins or neural structures are common in the elderly as a by-product of aging. Not everyone will develop dementia. Neither does a negative PET scan mean that someone will not develop dementia.
"If we start treating everyone with preclinical Alzheimer's, we will treat many people who would not develop dementia at all," Dr. Kenneth Lang, a researcher at the University of Michigan and author of a recent article on the diagnosis of early Alzheimer's disease, recently explained to the New York Times. "I hope we will seriously consider the unforeseen shortcomings."
It is also a fact that the two major drugs approved for Alzheimer's have shown to have limited benefits in some patients for a limited time. No drug has been proven effective in mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia. A recently published Medicare study shows that positive PET scans lead to much greater use of these and other drugs, regardless of their limited or negligible benefit.
We cannot leave all the noise this discussion generates, dropping us from the hope that a small drop of blood may be enough to predict Alzheimer's emergence and be the path to better care and preventative measures. Knowing effective treatment can help trigger lifestyle changes in sleep, diet, and exercise that can help reduce or prevent Alzheimer's. At least one recent study shows the benefits of such changes.
According to Time magazine, scientists at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have been following nearly 2,500 people for nearly a decade. They found that people who take a healthier lifestyle overall – those who adhere to a low-fat diet, do not smoke, exercise for at least 150 minutes each week at moderate to vigorous levels, drink moderately and exercise with some cognitive activities in later life – there were lower levels of Alzheimer's dementia. The healthier activities people observe, the lower their risk. As we grow older, we must follow this prescription as if our lives depended on it.
Email Chuck Norris with your health and fitness questions. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Chuck Norris Official Page". He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.