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Preventing Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease will affect 14 million Americans by midcentury unless a cure is found, but there are several preventive measures that could stave off the tragic diagnosis, CBS 2's Paul Moniz reports.

Some young people are taking memory enhancement classes, such as the one offered at Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital.

Rachel Goodman, just 28, is taking the memory class because she's worried she's at risk. She has watched three of her grandparents succumb to Alzheimer's; only one is still alive.

"My grandmother right now is in a nursing home," Rachel says. "It's very scary for the family members to see this."

One in ten Americans over 65 will get Alzheimer's. Scientists used to believe the brain stopped making new cells as it aged, acting almost in the manner of a steadily emptying hourglass. But a growing body of research suggests the brain has the power to grow new circuits if it is continually stimulated.

"Keeping oneself sort of mentally challenged is so important and you can produce new changes in the brain," says neurologist Dr. Alan Mazarek, who treats Alzheimer's patients.

Even though Alzheimer's may be years away for Rachel, she feels taking a memory course is worth a shot.

"Is it going to stop me from getting Alzheimer's in the future? No," she says. "Is it going to help me right now for the several years [and] hopefully [prevent the] development of that disease? Yes."

Some supplements also yield promising results. New studies suggest vitamin E, known for its protective effects on the heart, may protect the brain, thereby slowing the onset of Alzheimer's.

A recent study done at New York Presbyterian Columbia Hospital found patients with moderate Alzheimer's improved when given high doses of vitamin E.

As a result, some doctors now advise that if you take 400 International Units a day of vitamin E it may help keep Alzheimer's at bay.

In addition to losing weight, exercising, and quitting smoking, neurologist Dr. Alan Mazarek has seen the substance huperzine, which is derived from a Chinese moss and is available in health food stores, yield promising results.

"Most patients I treated had improvement [for] up to 2 years," he says.

Scientists say Alzheimer's disease is caused by the buildup of amyolid plaque in the brain. Researchers are working on ways to dissolve the plaque or prevent it from forming because memory loss and cognitive difficulties follow plaque accumulation.

New studies suggest that taking prescription cholesterol-lowering drugs, called statins, can have the added benefit of protecting against Alzheimer's.

"Drugs that lower cholesterol can reduce the risk of hardening of the arteries," says Dr. Mazarek. "If you reduce that risk, you reduce the risk of stroke, which in turn reduces your risk of memory loss and Alzheimer's."

All these preventive measures can buy time until the development of a successful Alzheimer's vaccine, researcers say. It is already in human trials. Doctors look forward to its availability in the next 5-10 years.

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