Alzheimer's blog

Momentum builds on Alzheimer's drug research, quality of life issues

By Angela Lunde July 23, 2013

Last week, I attended the 2013 Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Boston. It's the world's largest conference of its kind.

The annual weeklong meeting brings together researchers and dedicated persons from around the world to share research and information on the cause, diagnosis, treatment and prevention, as well as caring for those living with Alzheimer's or a related dementia.

There was no announcement of a cure or major breakthrough promising to significantly alter the course of the disease.

Analyses from a much-anticipated phase 3 clinical trial of IVIG (intravenous immunoglobulin) were reported as negative and therefore not effective in treating people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's.

And yet, the conference did reassure me, and hopefully others, that there's progress and forward momentum to discover new therapies and most importantly to improve the quality of life for those affected today. Some examples:

  • Two new drugs show promise in early experiments and will likely progress to the next round of clinical trials. One reduces levels of beta amyloid, a sticky protein that forms plaques in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. The second is thought to reduce damaging inflammation that could lead to improvements in memory and thinking. But these studies are very early and have a long way to go before we should feel too optimistic.
  • A new study of nearly half a million French people reported that elderly individuals who delay retirement have less risk of developing Alzheimer's or other types of dementia. It makes sense because working tends to keep people physically active, socially connected and mentally challenged — all things known to help prevent mental decline.
  • Multiple studies focused on improving early diagnosis showed that an individual's own concerns about his or her memory serve as a good early warning sign for dementia and Alzheimer's. It's an emerging field in Alzheimer's research called "SCD" for subjective cognitive decline.

In addition to improving early detection and diagnosis of Alzheimer's, efforts aimed at increasing the utilization of information and support services were reported. Some examples:

  • An evidence-based tool created by experts with Minnesota ACT on Alzheimer's. The tool offers primary care doctors support in making an early diagnosis and then provides specific ways to demystify and simplify dementia care and ongoing management.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer's Association unveiled an excellent resource called The Healthy Brain Initiative. The goals of the initiative are to enhance understanding of the public health burden of cognitive impairment and help create evidence-based programs and effective public health practices in states and communities.
  • Steven Sabat, Ph.D. from Georgetown University, spoke at a keynote session about the risk and unjustness of defining people through their disease, which is not only a narrow view of that person, but also has a damaging impact upon that person's sense of social identity. Seeing a whole person and all of their attributes is the focus of Dr. Sabat's extraordinary work.
  • A program out of Northwestern University Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago pairs medical students with individuals living with dementia for a year. The "Buddy Program" has demonstrated that it improves medical student knowledge and familiarity with Alzheimer's while also heightening sensitivity and empathy toward people with the disease. The successful program is now being replicated in other states.

What a great conference. Clearly, I've offered only limited highlights. On a personal note, one of my most meaningful days was spent with Dr. John Zeisel, president of Hearthstone Alzheimer's Care in Woburn, Mass., and the "I'm Still Here" Foundation.

I joined John and a few others from all corners of the world for a day of inspirational conversation focused on the shared belief that people living with dementia thrive with meaningful engagement.

Finally, The Alzheimer's Association recognized two leading scientists with a Lifetime Achievement Award — William H. Thies, Ph.D., of the Alzheimer's Association, and our own Ronald Petersen, Ph.D., M.D., from the Mayo Clinic.

Hats off to them for their vision and leadership. Thank you to the Alzheimer's Association for this conference. It not only takes a village, it takes the world.

Jul. 23, 2013