THE BLOG
09/18/2011 12:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2011

Is Prevention the Only Answer to the Alzheimer's Epidemic?

Medical science is working miracles lately. At times it seems like science fiction. We are transplanting faces onto injured individuals. Patients swallow cameras that videotape their travels through the gastrointestinal tract to find growths that would otherwise remain undiscovered. Computer interfaces with the nervous system are restoring movement to those who have been paralyzed by accidents or war injuries. Great strides are also being made in research into the causes and cures of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Unfortunately, all of these magnificent new medical technologies are extremely expensive. We might not be able to afford them.

Advances are being made in the methods to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. However, the brain-scanning techniques being developed to visualize the amyloid plaques that characterize Alzheimer's disease will cost thousands of dollars for each patient. The new, technically-advanced tests of blood and cerebrospinal fluid to find markers of Alzheimer's disease will cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

After Alzheimer's disease has been diagnosed, the medications to treat the illness are also expensive. Today, such medication can cost up to $2,000 per person a year. The next generation of medications to treat Alzheimer's disease are likely to be even more expensive. Unfortunately, the changes that Alzheimer's disease causes in the brain usually begin 15 years or more before any changes in memory and behavior are noted. Thus, by the time Alzheimer's disease is diagnosed, the damage is done and the expensive treatments do little more than slow the pathological processes down a little. Although methods are being developed to diagnose the illness at the earliest possible time, there are few indications that an accurate, simple and inexpensive method will arrive anytime soon.

We are currently experiencing an epidemic of Alzheimer's disease. We are also in the throes of a severe economic downturn. The country is deeply in debt, and government expenditures, including those for health care, must be trimmed back. With millions of new cases of dementia expected to develop over the next few years, medication alone will amount to billions of dollars. Nursing home care can easily cost $50,000 a year, with prices going up annually. In the next few years, the cost of treating Alzheimer's disease is expected to skyrocket. In 2005, Medicare spent $91 billion on the care and treatment of Alzheimer's patients. By 2015, the expenditures are expected to be close to $200 billion. With the government going broke, and austere measures being implemented, it is clear that we simply cannot afford the current approach to the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer's disease in the midst of a growing epidemic of the illness.

I believe the most reasonable stance to take is not to develop evermore technically advanced and expensive means to diagnose and treat Alzheimer's disease, but rather to assume that we are all at risk for developing Alzheimer's disease, and that we must do what we can right now to minimize our risks for developing it. Thankfully, there is a substantial and growing body of evidence that for many if not most people, the prevention -- or at least the postponement -- of Alzheimer's disease can be accomplished with simple, inexpensive changes in lifestyle.

Much to its credit, the National Institute of Health financed a study to determine whether or not there is anything a person can do to reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Last year, the findings of that study were published with the title: "Preventing Alzheimer's Disease and Cognitive Decline." The panel discovered that several factors in lifestyle and health maintenance can be improved to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's. It was found, for example, that combating diabetes, stopping smoking, treating major depression, exercising regularly and staying intellectually active can help to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

The NIH panel was reluctant to endorse other measures that have been shown in scientific studies to reduce the risk the risk of Alzheimer's disease. They recognized the existence of such studies but felt the evidence was not strong enough for them to lend their support. However, most of these measures are inexpensive, common sense steps that not only can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease but improve one's general health at the same time. Indeed, many of these measures are recommended without reservations by doctors for the good health and happiness of their patients. These other means to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease include: reaching and maintaining your ideal weight, controlling high blood pressure, maintaining healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reducing stress, getting a good night's sleep, treating sleep apnea, seeing a dentist regularly, maintaining healthy blood levels of vitamins, such as folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin D, increasing intake of antioxidants, such as those found in richly-colored fruits and vegetables, maintaining friendships and pursuing a rewarding spiritual life.

There is no need to completely stop our search for the "magic bullet" to cure Alzheimer's disease. We may yet come upon a way to stop Alzheimer's in its tracks. Moreover, research itself is valuable. Our studies of the brain could bring us entirely new and unexpected insights with applications for the treatment of other human ailments. However, with the government finances in shambles, the rates of Alzheimer's disease climbing, and the costs of medical care skyrocketing, it is irresponsible not to emphasize the prevention of this terrible disease through safe, inexpensive methods we already know.

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