The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference: Balancing Hope with Realism

Alas, I was not able to attend the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver this month, but I did follow it closely on the organization’s website. The event attracted over 4,300 scientists, physicians, and other professionals in the Alzheimer’s community who gathered to discuss findings from their most recent batches of research.

If your eyes tend to glaze over when you read news blurbs about complicated research, I don’t blame you. The sheer amount of news these days certainly can induce medical information overload.

© National Institute on Aging
© National Institute on Aging

As an antidote, I offer my Cliff Notes version of the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference:

  • The conference primarily focused on causes, risk factors, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of the disease.
  • A couple of risk factors emerged, including late-life binge drinking, changes in gait (walking patterns), and sleep changes. (Note: A risk factor implies a correlation between the factor and eventual onset of the disease – it does not imply causality. Just because something is associated with something else does not mean that one causes the other.)
  • Several treatments showed promise, including experimental drug EVP-6124, intravenous immunoglobulin, medical food Souvenaid, dietary supplement citicoline, and home-based care coordination. (Note: Treatment studies focus on treating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s after the disease process is already underway. There is no evidence that any of these treatments are useful for prevention.)
  • But on the upside, four different studies indicated that targeted exercise training could reduce the risk of developing dementia among older adults who were either cognitively healthy or only had mild cognitive impairment. (Get moving, folks!)
  • Diagnostic advances now allow researchers to better identify people with Alzheimer’s when they are still presymptomatic. That’s right – early brain changes and subtle cognitive problems can now be detected so that a diagnosis of “preclinical” or “presymptomatic” Alzheimer’s disease can be made. Granted, this type of diagnostic accuracy is seen mostly in research settings and has yet to become evident in general medical practice. But what this means is that researchers can now test new drugs among presymptomatic individuals to see if the progression to symptomatic Alzheimer’s can actually be prevented.

As I scoured the event’s press releases, I felt a combination of hope, pride, and sadness wash over me. My hope emerges from the incredible strides taken by the Alzheimer’s community that have revealed more about the disease in the past 20 – 30 years than we learned during most of the 20th century (Alzheimer’s was first identified in 1906). My pride is rooted in the many years I worked for the organization and my first-hand knowledge of its dedication to ultimately finding an end to this wretched disease.

I didn’t want to feel sadness, but it’s best not to suppress such honest parts of the human experience. My sadness stemmed from my long journey with this disease – both professionally and personally – which has taught me that any measure of hope must be balanced with a healthy dose of realism.

Note that the conference highlighted causes, treatments, and prevention – but not cures. We’re simply not there yet. We’re closer to a cure than ever before, but using that emotionally-laden word more than sparingly is still premature. I applaud the organization for always putting out balanced, accurate reports with no spin or pretense.

So be hopeful, but be realistic, too. And remember that the greatest barrier to the development of better treatments is the shortage of participants in Alzheimer’s clinical trials. If you want to add a dose of activism to your mixture of hope and realism, check out the Alzheimer’s Association’s TrialMatch program and find out whether there’s a clinical trial near you.

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