N08 — March 2013 — Alzheimer's 101
Intro: An estimated 5 and a half million Americans are struggling with Alzheimer's disease. This weekend one of the largest groups to ever tackle the subject will gather in St. Paul, Minnesota. The joint venture by Mayo Clinic and the Alzheimer's Association will bring news of the latest progress from the world's leading experts. Here's Dennis Douda for the Mayo Clinic News Network.
"A couple decades ago we thought about Alzheimer's disease as sort of the end stage part of that disease."
Dr. Ron Petersen is Director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Research Center and on a mission to unravel the mysteries of this dreaded disease. With the help of volunteers, his staff has learned a combination of genetics and environmental factors seem to play a role. Also that complex changes in the brain begin a decade or two before symptoms ever appear. That's allowing doctors to diagnose Alzheimer's, and intervene, earlier than ever before.
"We have imaging modalities. We have what are called bio-markers, so blood tests, spinal fluid tests that give us a clue as to what's going on in the brain."
Dr. Petersen says the biological hallmarks of Alzheimer's are called plaques and tangles, proteins that are deposited in the brain, eventually leading to the failure of nearby nerve cells.
"Usually that process begins in the memory part of the brain, the so-called temporal lobe or the hippocampus in the brain."
High tech imaging allows them to monitor not only changes to the physical structure but also chemical functions within the brain. Petersen says that's all well and good scientifically…
"But, we're hopeful, that in fact as the field moves forward we will be able to develop therapies, drugs, immunization therapies that may in fact have an impact on this underlying disease process."
In the meantime, Dr. Petersen says each of us may be able to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's. Research shows a heart healthy diet, and engaging in regular physical, intellectual, and social activities all reduce our risk.
"Aging need not be a passive process, such that we just sit there and watch it happen."
For the Mayo Clinic News Network, I'm Dennis Douda.
Dr. Petersen is Chairman of the Advisory committee for the first national plan to address Alzheimer's disease, the National Alzheimer's Project Act passed by Congress last year.
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