Still Seeking Alzheimer's Understanding

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Nutritional supplements, memory exercises, and other purported prevention methods for Alzheimer's Disease may not be effective. A panel of researchers reported these findings at the recent National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science Conference in Bethesda, MD.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.3 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease, costing a total of nearly $172 billion every year. The disease results in a decline of cognitive functions, including memory, learning and reasoning.

Dr. Martha Daviglus, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, chaired the panel that reviewed dozens of published studies and data sets. The panel also included 14 doctors and researchers from across the country to provide unbiased conclusions. Medill Reports spoke with Daviglus about her experience as chair of the panel and its conclusions.

The 2010 NIH State-of-the-Science Alzheimer's Disease Panel (Daviglus first row, second from right) Photo courtesy of NIHThe 2010 NIH State-of-the-Science Alzheimer's Disease Panel (Daviglus first row, second from right) Photo courtesy of NIHWhat preventive measures did you assess?
The panel found that there is no evidence supporting the use of various supplements and vitamins to prevent, treat and cure Alzheimer’s or cognitive decline. We therefore caution the public about spending money on the false hope that these products will have an effect on these diseases.

What is the outlook for preventive measures?
We concluded that there is no convincing scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of any purported preventive measure for Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive decline. A group of experts reviewed the published research and presented their findings during the conference. We are not saying that any particular preventive measure doesn’t work, we are only saying that the evidence is weak. With more and better quality research, some of these measures, or perhaps new measures, may indeed be shown effective.

How did you feel about chairing the panel?
As a cardiovascular epidemiologist, I realize how lucky we are because we already know enough about the major risk factors to make strong recommendations about prevention of cardiovascular disease. We also have many excellent treatments for the diseases of the circulatory system. Very sadly, the panel found that this is not the case in the field of Alzheimer’s research. Despite many studies that have reported one or more risk factors, preventive measures, or treatments for Alzheimer’s, we found that there is very little well-established evidence supporting these findings.

I was definitely honored that the NIH asked me to chair this important event. For me, it was a new and amazing experience. The panel had to assess the data, evaluate the quality of the studies that had been conducted to date, and judge the results. It was really intense and a lot of work. For example, the panel convened until midnight on the second day in order to complete our statement of findings on time.

Were you surprised by these findings?
I was surprised and disappointed. I appreciate now that we have a lot more knowledge about other diseases. Panel members expressed concern that we could not provide better answers and give more hope to the public.

Is Alzheimer’s susceptibility determined by genes?
It appears that a variation at the apolipoprotein gene is associated with higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. But that doesn’t mean that everybody who has this variation will develop these problems. We need to conduct more studies among stratified and diverse populations which include people with and without this gene variant to determine the strength of this factor.

What advice do you have for people with Alzheimer’s in their family?
Until better preventive measures and treatments are discovered, the focus should be on achieving a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle and the prevention of the well-known major risk factors for chronic diseases.

Do you believe finding a cure for Alzheimer’s is a realistic goal for the future?
Yes, this is a realistic goal, and as researchers, we all hope that one day we will find not only a cure for Alzheimer’s, but for many other conditions. We shouldn’t lose hope. However, it is only through research that this goal will be realized.

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