New Hope for Diagnosing Alzheimer’s: Plus, Unlikely Team of Players Unite to Battle Disease

While it’s no secret that Alzheimer’s Disease can cause confusion in the estimated 5.1 million Americans directly affected by the disease, both researchers and the general public have spent years perplexed by the disease as well.  For a look at some of the most common misconceptions about Alzheimer’s Disease, see the Alzheimer’s Association’s list of the top 8 Alzheimer Myths.

The Alzheimer’s Association, which calls Alzheimer’s Disease “the defining disease of the baby boomers,” points out that “too many of America’s baby boomers will spend their retirement years either with Alzheimer’s or caring for someone who has it.”  The Alzheimer’s Association also points out that although death rates for other major diseases — HIV, stroke, heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer — are declining, “Alzheimer’s is the only top 10 cause of death without a way to prevent, cure or even slow its progression.”

There is no question that Alzheimer’s Disease is a growing concern, especially as the number of America’s baby boomer and elders continues to rise.  But despite the disease’s prevalence, there are already two positive developments in 2011.  First, researchers seem excited about a new means to predict — and perhaps one day to diagnose — the disease with certainty in the living.  Second, an unlikely team of players  has unified on the front lines…from an NFL superstar to some of America’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

Three Recent Studies Suggest ‘Biomarkers’ Could Play Pivotal Role in Predicting Alzheimer’s Disease

What is a biomarker? AstraZeneca defines the term as:

“a characteristic that is objectively measured and evaluated as an indicator of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes, or pharmacological responses to a therapeutic intervention.”

In essence, a biomarker is an identifiable variable that can be measured in humans.   While this may sound like a very broad definition, the breadth of the concept is what makes it so promising.

A recent study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and reported by Senior Journal,  aimed to investigate a potential relationship between “plasma beta-amyloid 42 and 42/40 levels and cognitive decline in a large group of community-dwelling older adults without dementia.”

The study found that older individuals who do not suffer from dementia, but have lower levels of “blood plasma and biomarkers beta-amyloid 42/40 (protein fragments),” may be at an increased risk for experiencing cognitive decline later in life:

“[The use of] biomarkers to identify elderly persons at risk of developing dementia could be useful for early prevention, if and when such interventions are available, and treatment.”

In a different study, three specific proteins in cerebrospinal fluid were found to potentially “spot” Alzheimer’s disease.  That study appeared in The Archives of Neurology.  The BusinessWeek article on this study is available here.  Of note, the Senior Director of Medical and Scientific Relations at the Alzheimer’s Association had this to say:

“This just reinforces the recommendation by [Alzheimer’s working groups] saying that biomarkers can actually be incorporated today into clinical practice in order to add a certain piece to the diagnosis if patients are already presenting with something that looks like Alzheimer’s.”

Still another study carried out by the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and the Texas Alzheimer’s Research Consortium, reported by Ivanhoe Newswire, found that blood serum biomarkers PLUS other clinical information could be used to more accurately classify patients with Alzheimer’s.  Commenting on the importance of such studies, the authors say:

“There is clearly a need for reliable and valid diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, and in recent years, there has been an explosive increase of effort aimed at identifying such markers.”

The Texas Tech study authors are optimistic:

“With the rapidly evolving technology and the analytic techniques available, Alzheimer’s disease researchers now have the tools to simultaneously analyze exponentially more information from a host of modalities, which is likely going to be necessary to understand this very complex disease.”

Pharmaceutical Companies are Uniting to Fight Alzheimer’s Disease

CNN reported recently on Big Pharmaceutical companies uniting to share data in an effort to better understand the disease:

Numerous Celebrities Help Raise Awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease

Dozens of national celebrities have been helping to raise awareness of the devastating toll that Alzheimer’s Disease takes on our society.   Here’s a “Behind the Scenes” look at some of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Celebrity Champions:

This CNN story (and the video below) highlights the emotional toll that Alzheimer’s disease has had on one such Celebrity — NFL star Terrell Owens.  Mr. Owens’ battle against the disease on behalf of his mother has touched hearts and inspired many:

Recognizing Early Symptoms is Important: Top 10 Signs

The Alzheimer’s Association provides 10 ways to spot early-onset symptoms here.  Summarized by MayoClinic, you will find them listed them below for your convenience:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
  4. Confusion with time or place
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  8. Decreased or poor judgment
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
  10. Changes in mood and personality

Have you Heard of Alzheimer’s Planning?

Many people are unaware that Alzheimer’s Planning is a sub-specialty of Elder Law.  It involves a unique and complex combination of estate planning, long-term care planning, asset protection, Medicaid planning, and nursing home planning, and requires a specialized knowledge of the legal and financial problems and issues that are unique to families dealing with this devastating illness.  We at the Farr Law Firm routinely assist clients with all of the financial and legal issues surrounding Alzheimer’s Disease.

One of the primary goals of Alzheimer’s Planning is to ensure the highest possible level of personal dignity and quality care for the remaining lifetime of the Alzheimer’s patient. To achieve this goal, it is often necessary to protect assets as quickly as possible, so that if the Alzheimer’s patient  must enter a nursing home, Medicaid can be obtained as soon as possible. Money that is protected through Alzheimer’s Planning can often be used to provide the Alzheimer’s patient with an enhanced level of care and a better quality of life while in the nursing home and receiving Medicaid benefits.

Conclusion

There is still a long way to go in predicting, diagnosing, and ultimately preventing Alzheimer’s disease.  But with help coming from all directions — the steady fight of the Alzheimer’s Association in leading the global fight for a world without Alzheimer’s, new research methods and tools, consolidated efforts from Pharmaceutical Companies, and the increased awareness created by dozens of celebrities who have been personally touched by this destructive disease — hopefully greater strides for combating this disease are in store in 2011 than ever before.

The Alzheimer’s Association, mentioned several times in this article, is the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support and research. The Association’s mission is to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease through the advancement of research; to provide and enhance care and support for all affected; and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health.  If you have a question about Alzheimer’s disease, if you’re providing care for someone with memory loss, or if you’re experiencing memory loss yourself, the highly trained and knowledgeable staff of the Alzheimer’s Association can assist you at any time — just call their 24/7 Helpline at 1-800-272-3900.

Lastly, don’t overlook the quality of life and dignity that can be preserved through Alzheimer’s Planning.  Until there is a cure or vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease, the focus for many families is on ensuring the quality of life and dignity of those suffering with this disease.  For more on Alzheimer’s Planning, please visit us at http://AlzheimersPlanning.com.

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