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In the future, will Alzheimer's exist?

New treatments, better detection and knowledge of prevention has doctors and researchers more hopeful than ever before.
/ Source: TODAY

About 4.5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease, and researchers predict it could strike 14 million by 2050, as the population ages. At present there are treatments available that target the symptoms, but one experimental drug is actually working to slow the underlying disease process.  NBC's Mark Mullen reports, and Dr. Giselle Wolf-Klein of the Parker Geriatric Institute shares information on other treatments, early detection and prevention.

Norma and Gene Cairns know each other inside and out — they've been an item for more than 50 years. But in 2002, Norma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and the couple faced heartbreak knowing her memories would slowly slip away.

But at the memory clinic in Vermont, Norma was treated with a promising experimental drug called alzhemed, and got positive results. The progression of the disease appears to be slowing and Norma is living a fairly typical life.

“I clean the house, I mow the lawn, I feel comfortable with myself,” she said.

No one knows for sure what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but some researchers believe it results from the accumulation of a molecule called amyloid peptide in the brain.  It's the main constituent of the sticky plaques that gum up the brains of people with Alzheimer's.   “Alzhemed directly attacks this molecule, helps get rid of it, and reduces levels in the brain, so it slows down the disease,” said Dr. Paul Aisen of the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University.

Other medications on the market treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but alzhemed is the first known that aims to actually slow the progression. 

“I do feel better. I feel like I'm doing a good job,” said Norma.  “I know I'm not perfect, but I do think that I'm doing better with things.”

Currently in phase three, if alzhemed is found to be effective and safe, it could be approved in the next three years.

“There are an awful lot of people coming down the pike that are going to have the same problem,” said Gene Carin, Norma’s husband.  “And the sooner it's recognized the better everybody is.”

In addition to alzhemed, there are several other treatments for Alzheimer's disease in the works, including a vaccine called the IVIg — intravenous immunoglobulin — vaccine, which could help people who are known to be predisposed to Alzheimer's, and has the potential to eradicate the disease altogether. 

The vaccine would raise the levels of antibodies against amyloid proteins, which are found in higher levels in Alzheimer's patients. Human trials on this vaccine have begun but approval is still at least four years away. In a test in 2002, eight patients were given six monthly injections of IVIg, and their families found them more alert, engaged and articulate.

Early detectionOne of several new technologies that is being tested and appears promising is the PET scan. Researchers found very subtle differences in the brains of some middle-age and older people while they were still healthy, including lower energy usage in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. This difference correctly signaled who would get Alzheimer's or related memory impairment 85 percent of the time.

Another procedure, called annual volumetric imaging, compares yearly brain scans.  Doctors look at the size of the hippocampus, as a decrease has been found to correlate with the development of Alzheimer's disease.  This technique is becoming more refined and more important, now that drugs exist that can impact the course of the disease.

Prevention newsAt a recent Alzheimer's prevention conference, experts looked at the research on lifestyle choices that may help protect the brain.  The newest information focuses on nutrition and social activities.

  • Eating fish three times a week seems to prevent Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
  • Eating fruits high in antioxidants, such as blueberries, prunes and raisins, three times a week seems to aid in prevention.  People who drink fruit or vegetable juice at least three times a week are four times less likely to develop Alzheimer's than non-juice drinkers, according to a study of 1,800 elderly Japanese-Americans.  The theory is that juice contains high levels of polyphenols, compounds that may play a brain-protective role.
  • Social activity at least once but up to three times a week, such as dancing, chatting, puzzles, or learning a new language, may also help prevent the disease.