Alzheimer's Awareness: Why Bother?

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Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

As you may have read elsewhere, November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. But surely, the public is already well aware of this horrible disease. After all, Alzheimer’s has directly affected approximately 1 in every 2 families and the others must have certainly noted its prominent coverage in the news. We don’t really need more awareness, right?

Wrong.

Some of the information below may surprise you. That is to say, it is information about which you are not presently aware. However, by merely learning the seven facts below you will be helping to reduce the Alzheimer’s problem. That’s right…making you aware of this information and encouraging you to share it with your social networks will facilitate a more informed and more effective approach to combating the threat we face from this disease.

First, here are a few facts and figures that you may already know. Alzheimer’s currently affects more than 5 million Americans and that number is likely to triple by 2050. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the USA and is climbing steadily in the rankings. Also, Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia and accounts for about 65% of all dementia worldwide. These are all sobering facts but perhaps not new to your understanding.

7 Facts You Need To Know
Now, here are some points you may not know but should. It is the following information that I hope will stimulate discussion and promote a better understanding of the disease. With more discourse, we can begin to erode the lingering stigma that currently prevents some people with early symptoms from seeking timely medical attention.

1) We generally detect Alzheimer’s at the end-stage of the disease. On average, Alzheimer’s follows a 14-year course from the onset of the first symptoms until death. There is some variability across patients but 14 years is pretty typical. The more surprising news is that, on average, we diagnose Alzheimer’s in years 8-10 of that disease course. This means that for most patients, symptoms go undiagnosed and untreated for at least seven years, during which time the lesions spread through the brain and cause irreparable damage. Please be aware that we diagnose Alzheimer’s disease far too late to optimize the effects of currently available treatments.

2) Sudden or Severe Memory loss is not a part of normal aging. The point about end-stage detection raises an obvious question about “why” we diagnose this disease so late. There are many contributing factors but most of them can be reduced through awareness and education. Some patients with memory concerns resist medical attention in the early stages because they fear a stigmatizing label or because they are misinformed to believe that Alzheimer’s cannot be treated. Many people, including a startling number of physicians, incorrectly believe that memory loss, even sudden or severe loss, is a normal part of aging. Improving the timeliness of diagnoses for Alzheimer’s is, in many ways, a problem that can be addressed through awareness and education. Please be aware that sudden or severe memory loss is not a part of normal aging and, regardless of the cause of the memory loss, timely medical intervention is best.

3) Current Alzheimer’s drugs are probably more effective than you think. Our widespread practice of late detection has many negative consequences. For example, one of the reasons that current treatments are often deemed ineffective is because they are routinely prescribed for patients with end-stage pathology who already have massive brain damage. With earlier intervention, treatment can be administered to patients with healthier brains, many of whom will respond more vigorously to the recommended therapy. Yes, we need better treatments, but a great start would be to intervene earlier with the treatments we already have. Please be aware that currently approved treatments may be more effective than some headlines indicate.

4) Alzheimer’s disease can be treated. Another treatment related concept about which everyone should be aware is this. Preventing or slowing further brain damage is preferable to letting the damage spread without constraint. Yet, many physicians, patients, and caregivers conclude that any treatment short of a cure is not worthwhile. While today it is true that we have no cure for Alzheimer’s, that does not mean there is no treatment. With a good diet, physical exercise, social engagement, and certain drugs, many patients (especially those detected at an early stage) can meaningfully alter the course of Alzheimer’s and preserve their quality of life. Please be aware that “we have no cure” does not mean “there is no treatment”.

5) The Alzheimer’s drug pipeline is full. Here’s another fact of which you should be aware. Through an intense research effort over the past twenty years, scientists have gained significant insight into Alzheimer’s disease mechanisms and about other factors that increase the risk for the disease. Much has been learned and some very promising drugs, based on sound theoretical approaches, are in FDA clinical trials right now. While much of the disease remains shrouded in mystery and we may still be a long way from better treatments, it is possible that an effective agent is already in the pipeline. Please be aware that, although we don’t know when, better treatments for Alzheimer’s are certainly on the way.

6) Taking good care of your heart will help your brain stay healthy. Know this; the health of your brain is very closely tied to the health of your body, particularly your heart. Researchers have shown conclusively that high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity all confer greater risk for cognitive decline. The mechanisms that keep oxygen rich blood flowing through your body play a key role in maintaining a healthy brain. Everyone should be aware about the close association between vascular health and cognitive health. Please be aware that maintaining good vascular health will help you age with cognitive vitality.

7) Managing risk factors may delay or prevent cognitive problems later in life. There are well-identified risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease that are within our power to manage. These include diabetes, head injuries, smoking, poor diet, lethargy, and isolation. With greater awareness of these facts, we can imagine a world where diabetics take more care to control their blood sugar, where helmets are more prevalent in recreational activities that are likely to cause head trauma, where people smoke less and eat more fruits and vegetables, and where everyone makes a better effort to exercise and to stay socially engaged on a regular basis. While these facts may not be well known, they are all well proven. Galvanizing an effort to publicize them is one purpose of National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. Please be aware that many risk factors for Alzheimer’s can be actively managed to reduce the likelihood of cognitive decline.

So why bother with Alzheimer’s awareness? Because it is a terrible disease poised to ravage our aging society and the lack of education and awareness has lead to a stigma that prevents a more proactive approach to early intervention. The result is that we diagnose it too late, which hampers the efficacy of available treatments. A more educated public could manage risk factors to minimize the likelihood of Alzheimer’s, could monitor personal cognitive health with greater vigilance, and could seek medical attention at the earliest sign of decline. Physicians could then diagnose problems earlier and prescribe appropriate treatment including diet, exercise, and drugs to slow disease progression as much as possible. In the end, we could have fewer cases, more effective treatment, slower progression, higher quality of life, and lower healthcare costs. The social, emotional, and fiscal benefits of awareness and education in this area are too large to quantify.

By reading this article, you have increased your understanding of the problem and raised your awareness about what can be done. That is a great step in the right direction but you can do one thing more. You can help to spread this message.

In the spirit of National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, please share this article with your friends to promote more widespread awareness. Post it to your Facebook page, share it with your LinkedIn network, link to it from your Newsletter, Tweet it, or email it. It doesn’t matter how you do your part, it only matters that you get it done.

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A better understanding and more awareness of Alzheimer's related issues can impact personal health decisions and generate significant impact across a population of aging individuals. Please use the share button below to spread this educational message as widely as possible.

New Alzheimer's Drug on Horizon? A Solid Maybe...

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Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation
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A new Alzheimer's drug, being co-developed by Biogen and Easai, has completed a Phase II FDA trial with seemingly positive results. The drug (BAN2401) is a monoclonal antibody that binds to certain forms of amyloid protein, which is considered by many in the field to be a key culprit in the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease. When the antibody is flushed out of the system, it takes the harmful amyloid protein with it. Over the past five years, several similar drugs have shown glimmers of promise before ultimately failing in Phase III FDA trials.

For perspective, Phase II studies are generally smaller (fewer people enrolled) with the purpose of determining safety for various doses of a drug along with any possible side-effects at each dose of the drug. Phase III studies are generally larger, often longer, and usually a final step prior to "market approval".

Biogen recently presented a snapshot of the data from their Phase II FDA trial at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Chicago. While the results showed a reduction in amyloid among subjects receiving the higher doses and a possible slowing of cognitive decline at some stages, the presentation lacked details and many questions remain unanswered.

The primary questions were related to the trial design which appeared to have lower-risk patients in the high dose group and higher risk patients in the untreated (placebo) group. If this was the case, then it would be easier to show that the treatment group fared better (perhaps on both amyloid deposition and cognition) than the placebo group. In defense of this approach, it was taken as a safety measure, not as an attempt to show efficacy through some deceptive trial design. With that in mind, the results are encouraging.

Secondarily, some in the field questioned the validity of the instrument used to measure cognition. The instrument (the ADCOMS) is a composite measure that pulls certain items from various other, well-validated instruments and combines them in a new instrument specifically designed to detect subtle changes. Given the well-documented mediocrity of the instruments historically used to measure cognitive change in FDA clinical trials,  concerns about the ADCOMS should be somewhat tempered because the new instrument may not be significantly better than previous instruments, but it is probably no worse either. With this perspective, lingering angst about the ADCOMS may possibly be over-blown.

Overall, the trial results are both PROMISING and PREMATURE. While there is reason for a fair amount of optimism, one should not carry that optimism with an unrealistic amount of conviction.

SAGE: A short test for detecting Alzheimer's?


Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation
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The Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination (SAGE) has received a fair amount of attention this year. Most of the attention has been driven by PR efforts and a website hosted by The Ohio State University where the test was developed.

Unfortunately, much of the press coverage has been somewhat sloppy and perhaps misleading. While the scientists who developed SAGE described it as "a test to measure thinking abilities", the press has repeatedly characterized it as an Alzheimer's test. As readers of this blog know, dozens of medical conditions can impair memory and other thinking abilities, Alzheimer's disease is merely one of them.

Press mis-characterizations aside, the data supporting the validity of the SAGE is quite minimal.  The instrument, a 15-minute self-administered questionnaire, was developed based on responses from a small sample of 63 subjects, and then validated on a sample of 1,047 subjects.

The website and support materials for the SAGE suggest that the instrument can detect dementia with fairly high accuracy of 95%. This has been the root claim for much of the ensuing press coverage. Remember though, the definition of dementia includes "impairment severe enough to interfere with social and occupational function". In this regard, a test that can detect such severe impairment may have little value, especially if it cannot detect more subtle symptoms such as those we see in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease.

From a clinical point of view, it is much more important to detect subtle stages of decline called Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). MCI is caused by a great many medical conditions and is often confused with normal, age-related changes in cognition. In fact, incorrectly assuming that subtle changes are caused by normal aging, rather than by an emerging medical condition, is the primary foe in our efforts to intervene at early stages against the various conditions that impair memory. Distinguishing the two is key to proactive management of cognitive health. According to the instrument's website, the SAGE is 62% sensitive for detecting MCI, which will provide little help for physicians trying to distinguish MCI from normal aging.

Other well-validated instruments are more useful in detecting MCI.  The most accurate test in the published literature is the MCI Screen.  It is 97% accurate in distinguishing MCI from normal aging, but it is not self-administered. Rather, it is generally administered by medical staff or a researcher. The ideal would be an instrument with the self-administering ease of the SAGE and the accuracy of the MCI Screen.