Posted at: 03/05/2013 10:43 AM
Updated at: 03/05/2013 5:46 PM
By: Ellery McCardle
Medical Edge: Alzheimer's
(ABC 6 NEWS) -- An estimated 5.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's Disease. Last weekend one of the largest groups to ever tackle the subject gathered in St. Paul with news of the latest progress from the world's leading experts.
"A couple decades ago we thought about Alzheimer's disease as sort of the end stage part of that disease," said Dr. Ron Petersen, of Mayo Clinic's Alzheimer's Center.
He is on a mission to unravel the mysteries of the disease. His staff has learned that genetics and environmental factors seem to play a role. Also, that complex changes in the brain begin a decade or two before symptoms ever appear. That's allowing doctors to diagnose Alzheimer's, and intervene, earlier than ever before.
"We have imaging modalities. We have what are called bio-markers, so blood tests, spinal fluid tests that give us a clue as to what's going on in the brain," said Dr. Petersen.
Dr. Petersen says the biological keypoints of Alzheimer's are called plaques and tangles, proteins that are deposited in the brain eventually leading to the failure of nearby nerve cells.
"Usually that process begins in the memory part of the brain, the so-called temporal lobe or the hippocampus in the brain," said Dr. Petersen.
High-tech imaging allows them to monitor not only changes to the physical structure but also chemical functions within the brain. Petersen says that's good scientifically.
"But we're hopeful, that in fact as the field moves forward we will be able to develop therapies, drugs, immunization therapies that may in fact have an impact on this underlying disease process," said Dr. Petersen.
In the meantime, Dr. Petersen says we may be able to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's.
Research shows a heart healthy diet, and being active, intellectual and social activities all reduce our risk.
"Aging need not to be a passive process, such that we just sit there and watch it happen," said Dr. Petersen.