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Towards a Better Understanding of Alzheimer’s Disease

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Leading researchers and advocates in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) joined the National Institute on Aging (NIA) on October 14, 1998, for a one-day seminar for health and science writers on Alzheimer’s disease and the accelerating pace of research. Writers from scholarly, research, and lay publications attended the session, which offered presentations on a wide range of topics, from new insights into the molecular mechanisms of AD to how the illness affects families providing care for loved ones.

With news about AD almost a weekly event, NIA planned the briefing to help reporters put the rapidly changing field into perspective and to provide a framework for their reporting on AD and dementia. The seminar, titled “Alzheimer’s Disease Update: New Thinking on Risks, Causes, and Treatments,” sparked lively exchanges between the scientists and reporters, as the journalists peppered the speakers with questions about upcoming drugs, the course of the disease, and the role of the family physician in understanding and treating symptoms of memory loss, among other issues.

Among the news organizations represented were the journals Nature and Science, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist, the Knight Ridder and Scripps Howard news services, The AARP Bulletin, and the Public Broadcasting Service’s “Health-Week.” NIA’s ADEAR (Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral) Center, which worked with the NIA’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison to put the session together, videotaped the program and now has the tape and background materials available for a wider audience.

The briefing was opened by Dr. Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad, Associate Director of the Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging Program at NIA, who told the group that recent, exciting advances in research are just the start of putting together the AD puzzle. “We have gathered here today some of the puzzle masters; the best that the field has to offer,” she said. “Their insights and enthusiasm represent the latest thinking in AD research.”

To start, Dr. Morrison-Bogorad spoke of the increasing urgency in finding a response to AD. The number of Americans who are age 65 and older–an estimated 34 million people–will grow dramatically starting in 2011, when the first baby boomers reach age 65. Further, she pointed out, “This explosive growth is compounded by the fact that more and more people are living to very advanced ages. By 2050, the number of people age 85 and older–now about 4 million–could reach 19 million or considerably more.” The magnitude of the problem becomes even clearer in light of studies indicating that the prevalence of AD doubles every 5 years after age 65, and that nearly half of all people age 85 and older are thought to have some form of dementia. Delaying the onset of the disease, she emphasized, could significantly decrease its incidence–perhaps as much as 50 percent by the middle of the next century–and therefore greatly diminish the enormous emotional and financial burdens of AD.

In the face of these startling statistics, NIA’s approach to AD has intensified, focusing on a number of important areas, Dr. Morrison-Bogorad said. She outlined the Institute’s three-pointed attack on AD: addressing genetics, molecular science, and epidemiology. Scientists also are examining clinical and social aspects of the disease. Dr. Morrison-Bogorad noted that a number of clinical trials are in the planning stages or are already underway. As such, research tries to attack the disease at its core, she added; the behavioral and social aspects of managing the disease and helping caregivers are also important areas of research.

Source: Connections Magazine [Volume 8(1), Spring 1999]

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