Alzheimers Disease: Research Directions

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Scientists at research centers across the country are trying to learn what causes AD and how to prevent it. They also are studying how memory loss happens. They are looking for better ways to diagnose and treat AD, to improve the abilities of people with the disease, and to support caregivers.

The major risk factors for AD are age and family history. Other possible risk factors include a serious head injury and lower levels of education. Scientists also are studying additional factors to see if they may cause the disease.

Some of these factors include:

1. Genetic (Inherited) Factors

Scientists believe that genetic factors may be involved in more than half of the cases of AD. For example, a protein called apolipoprotein E (ApoE) may be important. Everyone has ApoE, which helps carry cholesterol in the blood. However, the function of ApoE in the brain is less understood. The ApoE gene has three forms. One form seems to protect a person from AD, and another form seems to make a person more likely to develop the disease. Scientists still need to learn a lot more about ApoE and its role in AD.

2. Environmental Factors

Scientists have found aluminum, zinc, and other metals in the brain tissue of people with AD. They are studying these metals to see if they cause AD or if they build up in the brain as a result of the disease.

3. Viruses

Some scientists think that a virus may cause AD. They are studying viruses that might cause the changes seen in the brain tissue of people with AD.

AD probably is not caused by any one factor. It is more likely to be several factors that act differently in each person. For example, genetic factors alone may not be enough to cause the disease. Other risk factors may combine with a person’s genetic makeup to increase his or her chance of developing the disease.

Scientists also are trying to develop a test that can detect or predict AD. If the onset of the disease could be delayed for even a short time, the number of people with the disease would drop. Delaying AD also would make the quality of life better for older people and lead to savings in health care costs.

Other research is aimed at helping both patients and caregivers cope with the patients’ loss of abilities and the stress this causes. For example, researchers are studying ways to manage problem behaviors in patients, such as wandering and agitation. Still other scientists are evaluating services and programs for patients and caregivers, including respite care. Respite care covers a variety of situations in which someone else cares for the patient for a period of time, giving family caregivers temporary relief.

Source: U.S Department of Health and Human Services

Public Health Service

National Institutes of Health

National Institute on Aging

Published in August 1995