Ronald C. Petersen, M.D., Ph.D.: A couple of decades ago, we thought about Alzheimer's disease as sort of the end stage part of that disease.

Dennis Douda: Dr. Ron Peterson 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.

Ronald C. Petersen, M.D., Ph.D.: We have imaging modalities. We have what are called biomarkers, so blood tests, spinal fluid tests, that give us a clue as to what's going on in the brain.

Dennis Douda: Dr. Peterson says the biological hallmarks of Alzheimer's are called plaques and tangles, proteins are deposited in the brain, eventually leading to the failure of nearby nerve cells.

Ronald C. Petersen, M.D., Ph.D.: But usually, that process begins in the memory part of the brain, so-called temporal lobe or around the hippocampus in the brain.

Dennis Douda: High tech imaging allows them to monitor not only changes to the physical structure, but also to chemical functions within the brain. Peterson says, that's all well and good scientifically.

Ronald C. Petersen, M.D., Ph.D.: 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.

Dennis Douda: In the meantime, Dr. Peterson 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.

Ronald C. Petersen, M.D., Ph.D.: Aging need not be a passive process, such that we just sit there and watch it happen.

Dennis Douda: For the Mayo Clinic News Network, I'm Dennis Dota.

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Sept. 22, 2022