I study the effects of neurological disorders on language, and I’m simultaneously fascinated and frightened by the syndromes and disorders I see in the patients who participate in my lab’s studies. Without question, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most terrifying. It progressively destroys your memory and ability to communicate, before eventually killing you. While there are some treatments that can slow the progression of symptoms in some people, there still isn’t anything resembling an effective cure. While we’ve identified some genetic markers and protein abnormalities in the brains of people with AD, we still don’t really know what causes it. But, we do know that the number of people with Alzheimer’s in America is going to increase rapidly over the next 40 years, according to a new study published in Neurology.
Researchers at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging in Chicago collected interview data from more than 10,000 adults over the age of 65, and screened a sample of them for AD. From these data, they figured that there are 5 million Americans with AD today, but that will swell to almost 15 million by 2050, nearly a threefold increase.
The surge in the number of people with AD probably reflects the increasing longevity of the baby boomer generation, according to the study’s authors: adults over the age of 85 were projected to see the greatest increase in number of AD cases, from 2 million cases today to 7 million in 2050. In contrast, the Census Bureau estimates that the overall population of America will only increase by approximately 25 percent in that same timeframe, so this clearly isn’t a simple case of a jump in disease following a jump in population.
So what can we do to prevent this? That’s the scariest part: we don’t really know. The study’s authors claim that any treatments designed to delay the onset of AD wouldn’t have an effect on their current projections. The FDA has approved five drugs to treat symptoms in AD, but they’re only effective for about half the people who take them, and none of them are intended to prevent AD. Promising treatments involving brain stimulation are still years away from public availability.
If there is a bright side, it’s that we know more about AD today than ever before, and that AD research will be well-funded for at least the next decade. Until we find an effective cure, though, I think we need to take studies like this as a reminder that our brains are incredibly fragile. I see on a daily basis how neurological disorders like AD can wipe out a person’s ability to communicate or otherwise function in the world – the possibility that the prevalence of such a debilitating condition might increase over the course of my lifetime frightens me more than any weapon or person ever could.