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Alzheimer Cases Expected To Skyrocket Over Next Fifty Years

by Jennifer Wider, MD

(Washington DC, September 4, 2003 ):  The number of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease will triple in the next fifty years, according to a new study published in the August 2003 issue of the Archives of Neurology. The disease currently affects roughly four and a half million Americans and will become much more prevalent unless new preventive and therapeutic options are discovered.

Researchers analyzed the incidence of Alzheimer disease in a sample population and used U.S. Census Bureau data to extrapolate the prevalence of the disease in the United States now and in the future. According to the study's projections, people aged 85 and older will be the most significantly affected. By the year 2050, it is estimated that sixty percent of people with Alzheimer's disease will be over the age of 85.

"This increase is very much driven by the aging population," according to the study's lead researcher Denis A. Evans, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging in Chicago, Ill. "It will become a real problem if we don't do anything," Evans said. "This is what the future will look like."

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive disease that affects the brain and causes a decline of thinking, memory and language skills. The exact cause of Alzheimer's disease is unknown, but many researchers point to aging, genetics, family history and vascular disorders as likely risk factors. The onset is usually gradual and the course of the disease varies from patient to patient. According to statistics from the Family Caregiver Alliance, patients live an average of eight years after diagnosis, although some may live for twenty or more years.

The risk of Alzheimer's disease increases as people age. Women have longer life expectancies than men and are therefore affected at higher rates, according to data from the Alzheimer's Association. "Alzheimer's disease is a women's health issue," Evans said. "Because women live to ages that Alzheimer's disease is more common, more women will get it." Women also tend to assume the role of caregivers more frequently than men, so the social and emotional burden of the disease is greater for them as well Evans said.

With so many people at risk, much effort has been made to understand the disease. Many scientists have studied the relationship between the hormone estrogen and Alzheimer's disease. In the past, it was thought that estrogen could protect the brain from degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. Recent data from the Women's Health Initiative study published in the May 28, 2003, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association challenged that belief. Estrogen replacement therapy did not protect women against Alzheimer's disease and may have even increased their risk of developing it. "Estrogens represent a broad class of drugs," Evans explains, cautioning people from drawing sweeping conclusions, "it may help in different forms and we need more studies."

The medical community is exploring new treatments for Alzheimer's disease. According to Evans, ongoing clinical trials are examining non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), vitamin E and other anti-oxidants in the treatment and prevention of the disease. Researchers are also examining the role of diet in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease. "Patterns of fat intake including trans-fatty substances may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease and are being looked at in observational studies. Eating fish may decrease the risk," Evans said.

The Society for Women's Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its Board of Directors.

Created: 9/6/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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