As the global population ages, the number of people living with Alzheimers and dementia is projected to rise, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that the number will increase nearly three times from its current five million by 2050. That made lead you to wonder if there will ever be a cure.
It’s essential to understand the difference between Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and dementia. AD is a specific disorder. Dementia is a catch-all term that includes a variety of conditions from physical injury to nutritional deficiencies to other health conditions. It’s not one disease, but rather many. As you may expect, the approaches for a cure differ radically between the two.
How Alzheimers Is Treated Today
Research has focused on several aspects of treatment. It has included identification of genetic risk factors, prevention, and a better understanding of its causes. The latter is crucial for directing the future course of science. Once the mechanisms of the disease are known, researchers can look for ways to control or eliminate it.
The Current State of Knowledge
From its initial discovery in 1906, science has learned that AD causes irreversible brain damage. That, in turn, manifests itself in cognitive decline, inappropriate behavior, and a host of other debilitating symptoms. Scientists have since identified several telltale structural changes. They include abnormalities like amyloid plaques and tangles of fibers described by Dr. Alois Alzheimer.
Science also knows that loss of connections between nerve cells or neurons occurs. That is the means by which communication happens in the brain. Perhaps as a result of these consequences, inflammation comes into play. Normally, it is a natural response to disease-causing organisms or injury. In this case, it’s out of control and chronic.
Eventually, brain cells die, further stimulating the immune system. Therein lies the challenge. Normal body processes are at work with Alzheimer’s disease. The solution may lie with finding the balance between control and body function.
The Direction of Research
Doctors use a three-prong approach to treating, or perhaps more correctly, managing AD. They use medications to control cognitive symptoms. They will also employ psychosocial methods for behavioral issues. Caregiving ensures quality treatment and comfort for the patient. The promise of new medications has emerged as scientists have identified more potential targets.
That is a significant breakthrough. It can potentially halt the progress of the disease before it causes irreversible damage to the brain. Currently, doctors have five drugs at their disposal for treating symptoms—temporarily. New research will develop a new generation of medications that will act on the progression of the disease itself. It is the first step toward a cure.
Plaques in the Cross Hairs
Research has uncovered some of the mechanism responsible for creating plaques, one source of brain damage. Other areas of exploration include inflammation which is the body’s response to the formation of these abnormalities. Science is also looking at other mechanisms of the disorder including disruption of neurotransmitter levels.
These chemicals are the mean by which nerve cells communicate with one another. Impairment of these natural processes is one way in which the disease damages the brain. But the procedure for developing new drugs is costly and lengthy.
The road from development to FDA approval costs nearly $2.6 billion and takes over 10 years, according to a study by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. While the pharmaceutical industry has been criticized for its role, one must remember that these large corporations are some of the only institutions capable of affording the cost and time.
Dementia Treatment Options
Treatment of dementia depends on the underlying cause. Already, some sources of memory loss such as nutritional deficiencies and metabolic disorders are reversible. In essence, a cure exists for some conditions. The success rate, of course, depends on how early it has been caught and the degree of brain damage.
Some options include helping the brain heal itself through its ability to respond to injury through neuroplasticity. A crucial factor to the survival of any species is the ability to adapt to a changing environment. That includes things that happen with an organism. The human body is no different. The brain creates new neural connections in response to stimuli.
If you start playing an instrument or learning a new language, your brain responds with the creation of new pathways. Likewise, it can adapt to injury with other parts of the brain assuming the lost functionality. Research has borne this out with advances in the treatment of some causes of dementia including stroke and Huntington’s disease.
These advances show that cures for the different causes of dementia are possible. Sometimes, it involves supporting the natural processes in which the human body tries to rectify the damage. Options include a variety of complementary therapies including cognitive stimulation. However, the complexity of the brain and its functions presents additional obstacles.
Severe damage is a barrier to a full cure. The key then is to prevent dementia or Alzheimers from reaching this point of no return. Scientists suspect that either one is caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. The cure is likely to be as complex as the manifestation of these disorders.
Current research has focused on identifying biomarkers that are telltale signs of the conditions. Remember that some signs of AD and dementia are easily dismissed as non-serious cases of cognitive decline. The road to treatment begins by determining real indicators of a disease versus false positives.
Time is the crucial factor which will decide whether Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are fully curable. Science is definitely on the right path through identifying risk factors and early detection. There are many challenges on the road ahead not the least of which is bringing new treatments to the forefront.
It will depend not only on research but the generous contributions of time and effort by volunteers to clinical trials to get to the truth and answers for treating these debilitating conditions. Hope remains strong that science will discover cures to spare future generations from the enormous burdens of these disorders.