The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine came out with a new report recently showing just how little is still known about preventing cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. The report should spur a doubling down on research into a disease that’s becoming more prevalent as baby boomers age, taxing the health care system and those pressed into service as caregivers.
The academies’ report is remarkable more for what it did not say than what it did. The authors reviewed existing research and decided that too little was known to offer any definitive advice on how to avoid Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia, which begins with memory loss and progresses to the point that victims are out of touch with their surroundings. The most they could do was to repeat suggestions that have been made in the past for brain health and general physical well-being: Stay physically active, keep stimulating your brain and mind your blood pressure.
“You can do these three things, or one or more, and you might — you wouldn’t want to say you will — but you might be able to delay cognitive decline,” said Alan I. Leshner, the report chairman. That’s little comfort considering that there is no cure for Alzheimer’s and current treatments only slow progression of the disease.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease afflicts more than 5 million Americans and could affect as many as 16 million by 2050. It disproportionately targets women and minorities. It takes a psychological and physical toll on millions of caregivers. Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia will account for an estimated $259 billion in health care costs this year.
The Alzheimer’s threat is growing even as the mortality rates for many other prominent diseases are falling. It’s rare, the association says, for science to lag so far behind a disease that’s mowing down so many.
All of these are excellent reasons to ramp up Alzheimer’s research, and the academies’ report provided a road map for doing so. It cited the need for studies that examine Alzheimer’s and prospective treatments on different racial, socioeconomic and age groups. It called for efforts to identify individuals and groups at higher risk of the disease and research to determine just how early treatment might begin. “Alzheimer’s-related brain changes are known to appear well before symptoms manifest and may even be present in young adults,” the report says. “Is there a conceivable way to study people this young for an illness that typically develops many decades later?”
In the past, the association has complained that the federal government has slighted Alzheimer’s research funding, compared to that for other major diseases. In coming years, the government must provide adequate resources to tackle this health crisis.
The authors of the academies’ report said there is “much cause for hope” that the knowledge about Alzheimer’s will increase in just several years, and they noted that a follow-up to their study will be needed to educate the public about new lessons or breakthroughs. Let’s hope the next report contains more answers and fewer questions.