Could the simple act of taking a drug help keep a person with memory loss from disappearing into the thick fog of Alzheimers disease? No one yet knows, but a new study at the U-M and other sites across the nation is attempting to find out.
Scientists, including neurology professor Norman Foster believe that some of the same drugs already used to treat the 4 million Americans with Alzheimers might also keep relatively healthy people from developing this dreaded cause of dementia. This goal is more important than ever because experts predict that 10 million Americansincluding a quarter million Michigan residentswill have Alzheimers by the year 2040.
The new study, the first of its kind, tests the preventive properties of promising drugs. It focuses on patients with a form of serious but not incapacitating memory loss that scientists call mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
All of us forget things as we grow olderwhere the car keys are, whether weve turned off the iron before leaving home. But somewhere between this normal forgetfulness and Alzheimers lies MCI. Millions of older Americans live with this condition, which leaves them with their wits intact but with much less ability to remember events, actions and information for very long. Studies have shown that it also increases by tenfold their risk of developing Alzheimers.
Says Foster, who co-directs the Michigan Alzheimers Disease Research Center, One of the groups thats at highest risk for Alzheimers are the people with significant memory problems, who perform at the lowest 5 percent for their age group in memory tests, but are otherwise able to perform all of their everyday activities. Thats who will take part in this study.
The project, funded by the National Institute on Aging and a pharmaceutical company, will follow 720 55- to 90-year-old MCI patients for three years. Doctors at the University and other research centers will monitor their physical and mental condition as they take either a placebo, vitamin Ewhich has shown promise in slowing mild Alzheimersor donepezil, which is one of two drugs approved by the FDA for the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimers.
Those who wish to participate may call 1-888-455-0655 to be screened for inclusion in the study.
Alzheimers disease is a brain disorder that causes progressive loss of intellectual ability, known as dementia, and particularly memory loss. Thought to affect 5 percent of people 65 years of age and older, and 20 percent of people 80 years of age and older, it also can strike people as young as their late 30s.
Only 1 percent of healthy people 65 years of age and older develop Alzheimers each year, but that rises to 12 to 20 percent per year in people with MCI. Besides MCI, other risk factors that can increase a persons chance of developing it are a family history of Alzheimers disease, increasing age and disorders like Down syndrome.
Just like MCI, Foster says, Alzheimers begins with memory problems. They begin gradually, and can be hardly noticeable at first, but over time they progress to the point that they affect everyday activities, he notes. At this point, the problem is clearly different from normal aging. Were beginning to look at Alzheimers disease earlier and earlier in its progression, and trying to identify patients who have the earliest symptoms because we think that we can have the most effect at altering the disease course then.
Foster cites 10 warning signs that can be used to recognize Alzheimers:
If patients have one or more of these warning signs, they should seek the advice of their physician, Foster urges.
MCI is trickier to diagnose, but physicians have recently developed a list of criteria: memory complaints, abnormal memory for the patients age, ability to carry out normal activities of daily life and normal cognitive function. For example, an MCI patient will forget important events repeatedly, or not be able to remember as many details of a short paragraph or picture as a person of the same age with normal memory. On the other hand, they will be able to shop, prepare meals and continue their hobbies.
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