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Cases of Alzheimer’s Growing, Report Says

March 21, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: As Americans age, the rate of Alzheimer’s continues to climb. Roughly five million people in the United States suffer from the disease, representing a 10 percent spike over the last five years.

A new Alzheimer’s Association report finds the vast majority of these patients are elderly, but there are also as many as half a million people living with the disease who are under 65.

For more on this and the latest in treatment, we turn to Stephen McConnell, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the Alzheimer’s Association.

Welcome, Mr. McConnell.

STEPHEN MCCONNELL, Alzheimer’s Association: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So what do we know about why these numbers are increasing?

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: The biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is age. So as the population ages, we’re going to see increases in the numbers of people with Alzheimer’s.

Baby boomers are coming along, approaching the age of highest risk. This is a huge part of the population. We’re going to see skyrocketing numbers, as many as eight million by 2030 and 16 million by 2050.

As you pointed out in the report, though, there’s this sizeable number of people under 65, and that’s been mostly unreported in the past.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, why is that? Is that the boomer effect, as well, or is it just that it’s always been there and we didn’t count it?

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: It’s mostly that we didn’t count it, but it’s now there in significant enough numbers that we’re beginning to see it. So, you know, I think when a person at age 50 goes in to see a doctor with problems that he might think could be significant memory problems, the doctor looks for everything else. He must be depressed, or he must have marital problems or stress at work.

And so, frequently, people under age 65 have a very hard time getting a diagnosis. So this is important to draw attention to this, so that people who do have significant problems get a diagnosis, get help. They’re protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, so they could be accommodated in the workforce.

But this is a problem that really is going to continue to grow unless we do something about it.

More people dying of Alzheimer's

GWEN IFILL: Well, something else in the report caught my eye, in that it said that more people also are dying of Alzheimer's, not just suffering with it, but dying of it. Why is that?

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: There's a cruel irony in those numbers, for sure. What we're seeing is a decline in deaths caused by heart disease, by stroke, by various forms of cancer and, at the same time, a dramatic increase in Alzheimer's.

Those are not unrelated. As we cure these other diseases, what's happening is people are living longer. So it's kind of a terrible reward, if you will, for being able to survive cancer to then confront Alzheimer's disease.

GWEN IFILL: Are there risk factors to watch for? Are you more prone to develop Alzheimer's -- has anybody proven this -- if you suffer from heart disease, say?

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: The latest research is showing a close relationship between cardiovascular risk factors and Alzheimer's. So blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cholesterol are all also risk factors for Alzheimer's.

So we say, in the Alzheimer's Association, what's good for your heart is also good for your head.

The ripple effect of the disease

GWEN IFILL: You know, it's interesting, there's also the ripple effect question with Alzheimer's. And like a lot of diseases, it has immediate effects on people, caregivers, people in other families, and, as a result, on the economy.

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: There are 10 million people caring for that roughly five million people with Alzheimer's disease. Those are the ones providing direct care, putting in some 85 billion hours in that care.

We know that it's very stressful. People that are caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease are more likely to have injuries caused by falling, lowered immune systems, premature death. So it's a disease that does have a ripple effect. It affects the children of a person with Alzheimer's because of the economic impact. Frequently, people have to choose between care for an elderly parent and college education and so forth.

New treatments for Alzheimer's

GWEN IFILL: Periodically on this program and others, we talk about new discoveries about Alzheimer's, and then we see a report like this and it feels like they're not really making a dent.

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: Well, I think it's important -- I mean, this report should really frighten us all into action and make sure that Congress knows we need to invest in research.

But there's a great deal of promise. Right now, there are nine drugs that are in the sort of last stage of clinical trial, of testing. And this summer, at the Alzheimer's Association Prevention Conference, there will be information reported from some of those drugs, and there's great hope that at least one of the nine may show some ability to alter the course of the disease.

There are treatments available for people now that are symptomatic. They make you function a little bit better, but they don't change the course of the disease.

GWEN IFILL: It's not a cure.

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: Not a cure, not even really altering the disease, you know. If you go off the drug, you essentially go back to where you would have been.

But these new drugs could possibly alter the course of the disease, and that could have a big impact.

Risk factors and prevention

GWEN IFILL: Is there anything you can do to prevent it? Are there steps you can take -- you talked about the connection between the heart and the head - that can delay, at least, the onset?

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: Well, we don't know yet if we can prevent it, but we do know that, because of these risk factors, that it may be helpful in reducing your risk of Alzheimer's disease if you watch your numbers, watch your weight. If you have diabetes, manage the diabetes, cholesterol levels and so forth.

All of those things suggest that -- and exercise, in particular -- that if you do those, you may lower your risk, but the research is still coming in. We're still trying to figure out how much exercise, what kind of diet. But it certainly can't hurt you to exercise and control your weight.

GWEN IFILL: As a bottom line here, have we improved our understanding of Alzheimer's and dementia over the years or are we just where we've always been on this?

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: We're now celebrating, if you will -- it's kind of an odd term -- the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Alzheimer's disease. But 85 percent of what we know we've learned in the last 15 or 20 years.

And so we've made enormous progress in that period of time. We understand what some of the contributing factors are. We understand a lot about the genetics. We're honing in on things that will allow us to detect the disease earlier. We can diagnose it with a good deal of accuracy.

There are lots of treatments now that are being investigated. So there's great hope. But, again, if we don't step up our commitment to research, Congress is sort of backing away from this now. If we can get the funding for research, we can find ways to cure this disease.

GWEN IFILL: Stephen McConnell, thank you very much.

STEPHEN MCCONNELL: You're welcome, Gwen, thank you.