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'The Long Good-Bye'; New Hope In The Battle Against Alzheimer's Disease

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Tony Bennett sang about leaving his heart in San Francisco, and Sunday night the city's heart was aching as CBS aired his final televised performance.

But, as Alzheimer's disease has slowly silenced the iconic singer, it's happening at a time when medical researchers are more optimistic than ever.

"She gets too hungry for dinner at eight," crooned Bennett as he took the stage with Lady Gaga in their "One Last Time" duet concert. In it, he sang a lot of the old standards from his past, and it was Alzheimer's that was dictating his playlist.

"The early phase, probably the phase that Tony Bennett is in now, is that he can't really remember anything new,
said Dr. Michael Weiner, a Professor of Radiology at UCSF. "So he probably could not learn a new song, but he can remember all the old songs."

Dr. Weiner said Alzheimer's occurs when the brain develops plaques and tangles in the nerve cells, leading to a degeneration of the memory and eventually the basic function of the mind. Nola Woods knows all about it.

"That's why they call it the 'long goodbye' because you do lose them well before they're physically gone," she said.

Woods, a former KPIX-5 reporter, became an Alzheimer's activist after her father William died from it at age 65 back in the year 2000. Twenty years ago there wasn't nearly as much understanding of the disease or support for families struggling with it.

"They mourn this person as they go through this journey because the time comes when they don't remember you and ... it's hard," said Woods. "Twenty years ago, my mom did it all on her own."

But a lot has changed over the years, including medical advances in early detection and the development of promising new drugs that may help delay the affects of Alzheimer's.

"And if you can detect the disease before it produced symptoms, then you could treat those plaques and prevent the development of symptoms -- a preventative approach," said Dr. Weiner. "And there are some trials that have been started to do that. Some of them are going on at UCSF."

There's also excitement at the Buck Institute in Novato. The research facility is studying the root causes of aging in general, and may have discovered a cellular trigger called "senescence" that unleashes a whole host of maladies including Alzheimer's on people as they reach the age of 65.

"We've realized in the last 10-15 years that a lot of the processes, like cellular senescence, can drive a lot of these disparate age-related disorders," said Buck Institute Professor, Dr. Julie Andersen. "In a sense, that gives us a lot of hope because there may be therapeutics that may work for a LOT of different age-related illnesses by dealing with those underlying issues."

Sunday night, the man who gave his heart to San Francisco took his final bow. But medical science has only begun to work its magic, extending to Alzheimer's patients in the future the sweet sound of hope.

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