Alzheimer's Disease, Where America Stands

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In its "Where America Stands" series, CBS News is looking at a broad spectrum of issues facing this country in the new decade.

One in eight Americans over age 65 will eventually develop Alzheimer's disease.

Starting next year, 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 years old each day. That means over the next four decades the number of patients could triple - to 16 million.

"There is a big tidal wave, a tsunami tidal wave coming out there," said CBS Reports: Where America StandsWhile deaths from other diseases have dropped in the last decade - heart disease down 11.5 percent, and stroke down 18.1 percent - deaths from Alzheimer's are up almost 50 percent. Shirley Carreas was diagnosed with Alzheimer's eight years ago. "I want to live and recognize my children, and my children's children." With Alzheimer's, annual Medicare costs triple. More From Dr. LaPook on Alzheimer'sDr. LaPook Alzheimer's ChatDr. LaPook Alzheimer's BlogDoc Dot Com: Alzheimer'sThe ProblemCan America cope - with a growing disease -- for which there's no cure? Ten years ago, the best seemed yet to come for three generations of one New Orleans family. But Lisa Carbo, now 55, had to move in with her mother, Shirley, when the 78-year-old was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer's disease.Tell Us What You Think Send us an e-mail.For five years, Lisa juggled caring for her mother and her job as a nurse. But then a curveball. At age fifty-three, Lisa was diagnosed with a genetic form of Alzheimer's - one that often strikes at a much earlier age. "It floors me. These women raised me," said Aimee Palmer, Lisa's daughter. Aimee's 31-years-old and doesn't want genetic testing because she could have the gene yet never develop the disease - and if nothing could save her, she'd rather not know. "You can't live your life thinking I'm going to die or I'm going to lose my mind at any moment," Aimee said. The SolutionWhile caring for Alzheimer's patients is critical, the only solution is to discover what causes this disease. The leading suspect is a protein called "amyloid" - which can form sticky plaques that short-circuit communication between nerve cells and destroy brain tissue. As hundreds of trilions of connections begin to wither, so does memory. Another possible cause? A protein called "tau," which forms "tangles" that damage nerve cells."More Alzheimer's Information Alzheimer's Association Alzheimer's Information from AARP Alzheimer's Information from the National Institute on AgingLisa is taking an experimental new drug - one that blocks amyloid formation. It's one of fifty drugs being tested in over a hundred clinical trials nationwide."I'd like to get some of my function back and possibly go back to work," Lisa said. "We have a ton of evidence amyloid buildup happens years before someone forgets where they parked their car," said Dr. Dennis Selkoe, Professor of Neurology at the Harvard Medical School.

"If we can shut down amyloid buildup very early, we think we can protect from Alzheimer's," said Dr. Selkoe.

Dr. Selkoe is a leading proponent of this theory and is invested in a company testing anti-amyloid treatments.

Poll: Nearly Half of All Americans Concerned About Alzheimer's

Researchers are looking at another possible amyloid blocker - exercise.

"This could decrease their chance of getting Alzheimer's," LaPook asked.

"We hope that's the case," Dr. Selkoe replied.

"We desperately hope the anti-amyloid drugs work, and if they don't we're going to be in a fix," said Dr. Ivinson. "So, we better get started on the next generation."

At Harvard's drug discovery lab, robots can now test hundreds of thousands of chemicals in a matter of weeks - what used to take humans a year.

"You're going to have to tackle this disease from a number of directions, just as we tackle heart disease from a number of directions," Dr. Ivinson said.

As in heart disease, experts believe Alzheimer's needs to be treated early - before symptoms begin.

Where America Stands Links
America's Dwindling Water Supply
Battling Obesity in America
Preparing the U.S. Military for the Future
The Future of Jobs in America
Hopes and Fears for the Next Decade

But in the absence of symptoms, how can doctors know who to treat? New PET scanscan detect amyloid in the brains of living patients - previously seen only at autopsy.

"It's the most important thing we can do," said Dr. Reisa Sperling, director of clinical research, Memory Disorders Unit, at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Determine if people with amyloid get Alzheimer's disease so we can treat at a time when we can still save their brains."

Another way researchers hope to detect Alzheimer's before it's too late is through a test called "functional MRI." It shows the brain in action.

While some scientists look in the lab, others are looking at lifestyle. On the tiny Greek island of Ikaria, people are aging without Alzheimer's. Researchers found of the thirty four people over age 90, only one has the disease. A Mediterranean diet and exercise are standard there.

At nursing homes like Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, Alzheimer's patients are pushed to keep their minds and bodies active - to delay further decline.

All the while hoping that a treatment will finally emerge to fight Alzheimer's and protect the memories that it destroys.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook