Former President Reagan's long struggle with Alzheimer's
disease is over at last. But his fight continues.
Sadly, Alzheimer's disease can't yet be cured. Not even for the
strongest women and men. Not even with the best medical care on earth. Yet
medical progress offers more reason for hope than for despair.
Diagnosis by a professional is particularly important, because a number of other ailments -- many of which are treatable -- share symptoms associated with Alzheimer's disease. These include infections, inadequate nutrition, vitamin B-12 deficiency, anemia, hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), depression, and cerebral vascular insufficiency (decreased blood flow to the brain due to constricted or obstructed arteries).
Also, a medication side effect or a harmful combination of medicines...
"A world without Alzheimer's disease ... is within our
reach," says Sheldon Goldberg, president of the Alzheimer's Association, in
a news release mourning Reagan's death.
Anyone who's followed the Reagan family's ordeal -- and that of
America's 4.5 million other Alzheimer's patients -- knows what the disease
looks like. People affected by Alzheimer's gradually lose their memories. They
become disoriented and confused. Their ability to reason or even to think is
What's happening is that brain cells are losing their
connection to other brain cells and die. It's not entirely clear why. Thick
plaques of a protein called amyloid clog the brain, and brain fibers become
Is amyloid the cause of Alzheimer's disease or the effect of a
deeper process? There's only one way to find out: Get rid of the gunk and see
whether Alzheimer's patients get better.
A Glimpse of the Future of Alzheimer's
Getting rid of plaque seems like a pipe dream. But that's just
what happened to some of the patients enrolled in a clinical trial of an
The trial had to be stopped because one in 20 subjects
developed life-threatening swelling of the brain. But when some of these
subjects died of other causes, autopsies showed something nobody had ever seen
"It really does look like this treatment is removing
amyloid plaque from the brain," Bill Theis, PhD, recently told WebMD.
"In other reports, the people in the trial who made more anti-plaque
antibodies had more maintenance of memory function."
Theis, Alzheimer's Association vice president for medical and
scientific affairs, promises that this July we'll hear more about the results
of this extraordinary trial during the association's annual meeting. However,
it's unlikely that the vaccine itself will ever be a realistic Alzheimer's
treatment unless somebody figures out how to eliminate its deadly side
Nevertheless, the study results -- and findings from animal
studies -- strongly suggest that it's a good idea to attack plaque, says Sam
Gandy, MD, PhD, director of the Farber Institute for Neurosciences at Thomas
Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
"I am pretty convinced amyloid is bad even if it is
true that another insult is more commonly the initiating factor," Gandy
tells WebMD. "I feel confident that removing amyloid is a good
Tomorrow's Plaque Fighters
Gandy says that scientists are in hot pursuit of three
First is the anti-plaque antibody approach. Using a vaccine and
allowing the body to make antibodies seems too dangerous. But what if you could
raise plaque-busting antibodies in the laboratory? Theoretically, you then
could find a dose that cuts plaque without killing the patient.