With a historic increase in the percentage of the world's population over the age of 65, there will be a tripling of Alzheimer's diagnoses by 2050—that is, if therapies for this terminal neurologic disease do not advance.
This and other daunting problems were discussed on August 24 at the 2011 Forum on Alzheimer's Disease: Advancing Research for a Cure. The public forum was hosted by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and featured Richard Hodes, MD, director of the National Institute on Aging, and Ronald Petersen, MD, the newly nominated chair of the Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Council on Alzheimer's Research, Care, and Services. Other speakers included Mary Birchard, the executive director of the Minnesota-North Dakota Alzheimer's Association, and Julie Allen, who has been diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Allen recalled how initially doctors thought her problem was psychological or menopausal. It was not until Allen saw a neurologist that she heard the correct diagnosis. She expressed her hope and support for advancing Alzheimer's research. So far, the cognitive function tests have been limited to confirmation of the disease in the later stages. However, as explained by Hodes, various new brain imaging techniques have been more sensitive and could provide earlier diagnosis.
In particular, brain imaging techniques such as MRI and PIB can show evidence of the disease in symptoms-free patients. These techniques can track amyloid deposition—one of the first changes in the brain due to Alzheimer's disease—in the pre-symptomatic stage. Diagnosis at the pre-symptomatic stage would provide more time for intervention and planning. Additional research is needed to advance these techniques but federal funding for Alzheimer's research remains inadequate. While annual federal funding for cancer is $6 billion and $4 billion for cardiovascular disease, less than $0.5 billion is spent annually for Alzheimer-related research.
Related article: A brain imaging scan identifies biochemical changes in the brains of normal people who might be at risk for Alzheimer's disease, according to research published in the September 6, 2011, issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.