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Fall 2010

Addressing Alzheimer’s Disease Early is Key

VS-Fall10-Alzheimer's Disease Early KeyToday, an estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease — the most common dementia in older people — and now experts believe damage to the brain that brings on the disease begins 10 to 20 years before the onset of dementia. With that knowledge in mind, it is now thought that addressing the disease at its earliest stages is key to staving off dementia.

“We believe that ultimately it will be easier to protect a healthy brain rather than try to repair the brain once damage sets in,” explains psychiatrist Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Center on Aging.

“Our strategy is to find biomarkers based on brain imaging, protein analysis and other biological measures to help us predict who is at greatest risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and then treat them early,” Dr. Small says.

Alzheimer’s disease is initially diagnosed when people experience cognitive impairment, such as changes in memory or language ability. A clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is supported with biological tests, but, says Joshua Grill, Ph.D., director of the Katherine and Benjamin Kagan Treatment Development Program in the Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA, it would be ideal to address Alzheimer’s disease before it reaches the stage where patients develop dementia.

“We aim to be able to diagnose and treat the disease before it affects the way people live their lives,” says Dr. Grill. Diagnosis is important because reversible causes of dementia, such as vitamin B deficiency or abnormalities in thyroid function, can be treated. There are currently no drugs for Alzheimer’s disease that change the course of the underlying disease once it begins — only medications that help patients deal with symptoms. But researchers hope that by catching the problem early, they can give themselves the best shot at slowing the disease with investigational medications in clinical trials.

“People who are concerned about something like memory loss should seek the help of a qualified physician as soon as possible so that he or she can help identify what’s really going on,” Dr. Grill says. “While some people are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease, it’s not certain that they will develop the disease, and they may be able to take steps now to reduce their risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.”

Dr. Small adds that “a healthy lifestyle is brain protective. If people really understood this and adopted even one healthy behavior as a result — something as simple as taking a brisk 20-minute walk four times a week, or eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day — it’s estimated that we would see a million fewer cases of Alzheimer’s in five years.”

For more information, go to: http://www.aging.ucla.edu

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