The Frontiers of Alzheimer's Research: Background information when reading Keeper

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Keeper

One House, Three Generations, and a Journey into Alzheimer's

by Andrea Gillies

Keeper by Andrea Gillies
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2010, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2011, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
The Frontiers of Alzheimer's Research

Print Review

The World Alzheimer Report estimates that there are upwards of 35 million people living with dementia worldwide, two-thirds of whom are women, with Alzheimer's accounting for about two-thirds of cases. By 2050 it is expected that 115 million people will be living with dementia.

In the United States there are approximately 5.3 million people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. One person is diagnosed every 70 seconds. By the year 2050 it is expected that this rate will accelerate to one person every 33 seconds. In the UK Alzheimer's effects about 500,000 people. Evidence of Alzheimer's can be observed up to twenty years before serious mental breakdown occurs. Once diagnosed a person's average life expectancy is eight years, at least half of which is often spent at home with a family member as caregiver.

After decades when there appeared to be no hope for people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease there has just been a major breakthrough, at least as far as diagnosing the illness is concerned. Dr. John Trojanowski, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, recently published a report on his research involving 300 people, all in their 70s, some of whom had been previously diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He gave each person a spinal tap and analyzed the fluid for a protein fragment that forms plaques in the brain and for another protein that accumulates in dead and dying nerve cells in the brain. This protein pattern was present in nearly every test subject with Alzheimer's; whereas other participants with significant memory loss did not have either of these proteins, indicating that these markers are related to Alzheimer's. Most notably, some participants who had early signs of memory loss but had not been diagnosed with Alzheimer's had the two proteins, indicating that they would be likely to develop the disease.

The medical community is quite excited about Dr. Trojanowski's findings because, if these proteins are indeed an early indicator that Alzheimer's will develop, it would be possible to give patients preventative treatments to delay or prevent the onset. That is, when preventative interventions become available. Therein lies the problem, many say, because at this time no preventative treatments are available, so what good would it do for someone to know, years ahead of time, that they have a future living with a debilitating illness?

Again, the medical community offers light at the end of the tunnel - according to a recent New York Times article by science writer Gina Kolata, several scientists whose specialty is Alzheimer's research are confident that more breakthroughs will come soon. Even so, given the reputation for pain and headaches that spinal taps have, many people are likely to have second thoughts about whether it is worth it at this time. Moreover, the specialists caution that false positives are still a possibility when different labs test the fluids. As with any new medical procedure people are going to have to decide, with the counsel of their doctor, whether or not this is something that is right for them.

Interesting Links
An introduction to Alzheimer's and links to resources in the sidebar to Still Alice

Article by Donna Chavez

This article was originally published in September 2010, and has been updated for the October 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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