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Alzheimer's Research Making Leaps and Bounds


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July 7, 2000 -- "There's something wrong with my mind, but I don't know what," was how Lottie Sowinski's grandmother described what they both would soon know was Alzheimer's disease.

Similarly, the medical community knows what Alzheimer's ultimately does to people's minds, but they don't know what causes Alzheimer's, or how to prevent or stop it. About four million Americans suffer from this degenerative brain disease that usually begins after age 65.

"We are sitting on the edge of an epidemic of Alzheimer's disease," says Bill Thies, PhD, because in the next 40 years, "the baby boom population bubble, which has dominated our society since it was born," is about to go through the age where it is the most susceptible to Alzheimer's disease.

However, experts see some signs of hope. Researchers from around the world will present their findings at the World Alzheimer Congress 2000 in Washington, which starts this Sunday, and will include the latest results from early human trials of an Alzheimer's disease vaccine that was shown to be effective in mice.

Thies, the Alzheimer's Association vice president of medical and scientific affairs, says if we don't become better at stopping the disease, then the number of people with the disease by 2040 could grow to 14 million.

"If you couple that with the fact that [Alzheimer's] is expensive and causes a lot of disruption in families that has the potential to not only bankrupt us, but exhaust us emotionally as well, [these] are all alternatives that nobody wants to see," Thies says.

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease can be traumatic, something Sowinski says she dealt with through the help of support groups. As the disease eats away at the thought functions of the brain, it slowly turns victims back into children, incapable of caring for themselves. The patient may suffer from sleeplessness, wandering, agitation, and depression. But the slow erosion of memories, past and present, can often be the hardest symptom to deal with, for all concerned.

Sowinski says her grandmother is "at the stage now where at least 45% of the time, she looks at me and knows that she knows me, but she doesn't know I'm her granddaughter."

That may be the past and present of Alzheimer's disease, but it is not necessarily the future. Research in the pipeline is cutting away at the disease from various angles.

"There are so many bright lights now compared to 25 years ago," says Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad, PhD. Back then, Alzheimer's was often thought to be an inevitable, normal part of aging. Morrison-Bogorad, the associate director of the National Institute on Aging's Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging program, agrees that the possible growth of Alzheimer's disease could be phenomenal in the next decades.

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