A glimmer of hope in the forlorn battle to overcome Alzheimerʼs

Scientists are seeing a lesser incidence of the disease in people born after 1930.

alzheimer'sBy Joan Cohen

The numbers are sobering. Recent estimates by Alzheimer’s Disease International indicate that 44.4 million people on the planet lived with dementia in 2013, that some 75.6 million will have the disease in 2030 and 135.5 million will be afflicted in 2050. Manitoba’s Alzheimer Society reports that in 2012, there were 4,400 new cases of Alzheimer’s or other dementia in this province; by 2038, the number could rise to over 9,350 a year.

Alzheimer’s, and the broader condition known as dementia, have been described as the world’s most disabling and burdensome health condition, the only one of the world’s 10 most deadly diseases that can’t be cured or reversed.

But in London last month, at a conference of G8 health ministers and other experts in the field, representatives from the eight powerful countries, signed a declaration agreeing to identify a cure or disease-modifying therapy for the disease by 2025. This after hearing a procession of delegates observe that a stigma surrounds dementia and that it continues to take a back seat in funding and research to other more high profile ailments.

Delegates were offered a significant glimmer of hope by Dr. Eric Larson of Britain’s Group Health Research Institute. Dr. Larson reported the findings of a study he has just co-authored in the New England Journal of Medicine. He made the point that since the epidemic is most prevalent among people aged 80 and more, and since that demographic will continue to grow, the number of people afflicted with dementia seems doomed to grow despite the benefits science might bring.

However, then comes the good news, reported here as laid out in the New England study. Recent findings on dementia – usually based on community studies or surveys – point to a lower prevalence of the disease among people born “later in the first half of the 20th century” – presumably just after the arrival on the earth of today’s octogenerarians. The Journal piece names two major studies published in the 2000s in the U.S. and three later European studies that show a declining incidence of dementia in comparisons with periods some 10 years earlier.

The differences in the numbers for the two periods were not statistically significant, the Journal piece explains, looking at a Rotterdam study of some plus-55ers. “But they were consistent across many groups. . .”

 Most intriguing to Larson’s research team “was the observation of larger brain volumes and less extensive [disease] . . in persons born later.”

In the interim period between surveys, the Rotterdam researchers in 1995-96 obtained scans of a group of persons without dementia. They compared these with scans of that group carried out a decade later, and found differences between the two scans that supported their other findings of a declining incidence of dementia. They thought this decline could result from “secular changes in education” as well as reduced risk of strokes and vascular ailments.

The U.S. studies also variously named higher levels of education, reduced stroke rates, and the combined impact of recent trends in medical, lifestyle, demographic and social factors as being positive for the health of older Americans.

“We believe [the] reports inform our understanding of potentially modifiable factors that contribute to the epidemic of this common and often tragic condition,” Dr. Larson’s group announced in their New England study. Such knowledge “is especially important for the study and development of prevention strategies.”

Meanwhile the solemn battle goes on as the world struggles to deal with Alzheimer’s/dementia as we know it today, and Canada’s Alzheimer Society is marking this month’s Alzheimer Awareness Month, with the launch of a nation-wide campaign to promote the benefits of early diagnosis.

Such diagnosis, the Manitoba Alzheimer Society explains, “opens the door to important information, resources and support, and helps people with dementia remain independent in their homes and communities longer.”

The Manitoba Society encourages residents to visit the Alzheimer Society’s website, www.Alzheimer.mb.ca to learn how to spot the signs of dementia, understand the benefits of a diagnosis and prepare for a doctor’s visit.

Meanwhile, for readers encountering memory lapses and other cognitive difficulties or whose loved ones have become somewhat forgetful, a glance at the table above could provide some preliminary guidance.

Displayed on the Manitoba Alzheimer Society’s website, it indicates the differing effects of aging and early dementia. Contact the society for more information.

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