November is national Alzheimer's awareness month, and today advocates around the country are focusing on the need for early memory screening tests.
In Minnesota, there are nearly 98,000 people living with Alzheimer's disease, and the numbers are only going to go up as our population grows older. MPR's Morning Edition spoke with one of the world's foremost experts in the field of dementia and Alzheimer's research. Dr. Ron Peterson, director of the Mayo Clinic's Alzheimer's disease research team.
Cathy Wurzer: What's the value in the early identification of memory problems?
Dr. Ron Peterson: I think it actually puts some people's minds at rest. If they've been noticing increasing forgetfulness in the recent months and maybe up to a year or so, they wonder, 'Is this really problematical or is this just aging?' I think it's helpful to have people get evaluated to find out. There might be something that's treatable or correctable, it might be the side effect of the medication, it might be another medical problem. Not all forgetfulness is Alzheimer's disease.
Wurzer: What are those early signs of dementia that when you see them, it could be a problem?
Peterson: The Alzheimer's Association has put out 10 warning signs for what might become of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in the future, but usually the key one is forgetfulness. Now, as you mentioned, all of us get a little more forgetful as we age -- Where the car keys? What's the name of that guy you used to work with you run into at the grocery store. That's really quite common and I think is probably normal aging. But sometimes we identify forgetfulness that is a little more worrisome. When you start to forget important information something that formerly you would have remembered quite readily, and importantly, you start to do this on a repetitive basis. ... That might merit an evaluation to see if something else is contributing to that.
Wurzer: What has research told us thus far regarding our understanding of Alzheimer's and other dimentias?
Peterson: We now think that that the deposit of these proteins, these abnormal substances like amyloid that are a partner in the disease process - plaques - (amyloid is the protein that ultimately develops into the plaque, which is thought to be one of the culprits in the disease) That process may start as many as 10 or 15 years before a person becomes symptomatic. So there's a good period there for intervention when we develop the appropriate therapies.
Wurzer: About $500 million is spent federally to fund Alzheimer's research, that's behind cancer and AIDS. Why is that?
Peterson: For cancer research we spend about $6 billion a year, for cardiovascular about $4 billion, for HIV-AIDS research about $3 billion, and yet we spend less than $500 million for Alzheimer's disease. Yet Alzheimer's disease, in and of itself, may bankrupt the whole system of we don't do something to either delay its onset or slow down its progression. So it's an absolute travesty that we are not spending that amount of money.
Wurzer: There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but there are treatments. What potential treatments in the pipeline hold the most promise?
Peterson: There are probably 90 to 100 compounds under investigation in various stages at pharmaceutical companies, universities, medical centers around the world looking at a variety of mechanisms. At the end of the day, what we call Alzheimer's disease or the dementia of Alzheimer's disease, if the dementia is due to Alzheimer's disease, there may be multiple causes that produce that dementia picture. So somewhat like high blood pressure is treated by a variety of mechanisms, it may be that Alzheimer's disease is similar to that. ... We ultimately will need a cocktail to treat the dementia syndrome.
Wurzer: Do you expect that there'll be some kind of a real effective treatment in your lifetime for Alzheimer's and dementia related illnesses?
Peterson: Honestly, I doubt we'll get to the cure in my lifetime, but I'm a little more optimistic about the possibility that we may develop therapies that could delay the onset of the disease and or slow the progression. That could have a huge impact in the overall individual, family, personal, as well as societal impact of this disease. So if for whatever reason I were destined to develop the dementia of Alzheimer's disease at age 75 and that could be pushed back to age 80, that would have a huge impact on my quality of life, my family and how much I cost the health care system. So I think those kinds of delays in onset and slowing the progression might be achievable in our lifetime.
(Interview transcribed and edited by MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar.)