It was a big week for Alzheimer's disease, and not just because PBS aired The Forgetting, a first-rate documentary about Alzheimer's worth catching in reruns if you missed it the first time. There was also a flurry of scientific news that offered hope to the families already struggling with Alzheimer's, as well as to the baby-boom generation that's up next. Unless something dramatic happens, the number of Americans living with this terrifying brain disease could triple, to about 16 million, over the next 50 years. There's still no cure in sight, but there is progress on several fronts. Among them:
MEGADOSE VITAMINS Doctors knew vitamins E and C, both antioxidants, help stave off Alzheimer's, at least in folks who haven't already developed the disorder. What they didn't know--but a big study involving 4,740 participants published in the Archives of Neurology showed--was that the two vitamins taken together in huge daily doses (at least 400 IU of E and more than 500 mg of C) could reduce the risk of Alzheimer's a remarkable 78%.
COMBINATION THERAPY A yearlong study of more than 400 Alzheimer's patients showed that two drugs that work differently on the brain's chemistry act well together to help slow down the disease. Patients who were being treated with donepezil (sold as Aricept), an older drug that preserves the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, were also given memantine (Namenda), a new drug approved by the FDA last October that blocks overproduction of a harmful brain chemical called glutamate. The two drugs worked even better in combination than they did alone, providing substantial benefit for patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer's, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
BRAIN IMAGING Finally, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh announced that they had successfully developed a procedure that allows them to peer into the brains of Alzheimer's patients with positron emission tomography (PET) scans to see telltale plaque deposits. Before now, doctors could not track the progress of these plaques until after the patient died, when the brain could be autopsied. Using the new technique, doctors may be able to begin treatment long before the first symptoms appear.
None of these advances is a magic bullet for Alzheimer's disease. If you or your loved ones are concerned, the first step is careful evaluation by your doctor. Not all memory lapses are Alzheimer's, and there are reversible causes of forgetfulness that can be treated if caught early. Also, remember the old adage "use it or lose it." Mental exercise--reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing chess or Scrabble--is as good for preserving your mind as physical exercise is for your body. --With reporting by A. Chris Gajilan/New York
Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent