Preventing Alzheimer’s disease from occurring is currently a primary focus of research worldwide. If not prevention, early detection and better forms of treatment are the more immediate goal.
While that may sound incredibly far off for families facing a diagnosis, discoveries are happening almost daily, if not weekly. Hope isn’t just on the horizon — it is here. That is exactly what Pat Summitt, the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach who passed away last month at the age of 64 from the disease, wanted as part of her legacy. The photo above — courtesy University of Tennessee Athletics.
“She wanted to show people you can still live your life when you get this diagnosis,” said Patrick Wade, executive director of the Pat Summitt Foundation in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Fans from across the country, her colleagues, players, and community gathered Thursday night at the University of Tennessee in celebration of her life and to continue some of the work she set out to do.
“She wanted to encourage others and put a face on Alzheimer’s disease and elevate the awareness. She became a champion of it and put herself out there, which is not an easy thing to do for anybody, but especially someone who’s such a huge public figure,” Wade told LifeZette.
It has worked. Since 2011, the year the foundation was created, federal funding for Alzheimer’s research has more than doubled in the U.S. — to $991 million, The Associated Press reported. The Summit Foundation itself has given out several hundred thousand dollars in research grants and committed another $2.5 million over the next five years to establish the Pat Summitt Alzheimer’s Clinic at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, which is scheduled to open later this year.
Perhaps some of the most encouraging findings already emerging are that Alzheimer’s may be detectable (if not predictable) earlier and earlier — even as young as three years of age. And if it’s caught early, there are treatments available that will allow people to live a long, healthy, and active life.
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things
- Decreased or poor judgment
“Alzheimer’s disease is a treatable disease and more successfully treated the earlier it is detected,” said Dr. William Rodman Shankle, an associate researcher with the cognitive science department at University of California, Irvine, and medical director of Shankle Clinic, which studies memory and cognitive disorders.
“Because it is hard to reverse cognitive impairment, the maximum benefit to persons who have a dementing disorder will occur when they are detected while they still function normally, so that its progression can be halted or delayed. Consequently, delayed detection is the primary barrier to preventing or minimizing dementia in 90 percent of persons with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The primary barriers to delayed detection are a knowledge gap, [lack of] access to an effective memory test, and fear of having one’s memory tested,” Shankle, a member of the Summitt Foundation Medical Advisory Board, said.
Other exciting areas of research include rapid advances in the understanding of biological measures of Alzheimer’s (“biomarkers”) that will improve the ability to diagnose, track treatment effects, and possibly even predict future course and/or response to treatment.
“There is special emphasis on our ability to image the abnormal protein deposits in the brain that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s and used to be evaluable only by biopsy or autopsy — namely, amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles,” said Dr. Pierre Tariot, director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix, Arizona. Tariot also serves on the Summitt Foundation Medical Advisory Board.
Development of both potentially disease-modifying therapies as well as so-called symptomatic therapies (to try to enhance cognition without necessarily attacking the underlying disease process) is another exciting area of research, he told LifeZette.
“There are nearly two dozen clinical trial programs that are far enough along that we will be getting readouts almost yearly starting in a few months,” Tariot said.
Leading researchers in the field also say there is growing evidence that lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise, may play a major role in increasing or reduce risk of developing Alzheimer's in the future. "A heart-healthy lifestyle is a brain-healthy lifestyle," said Tariot.
Emerging science and cutting-edge clinical trials will be a hallmark of the treatment and care at the Pat Summitt Alzheimer's Clinic.
"There's the broad impact of the clinic we hope to have," said Wade. "But what's even more encouraging are the individual lives we know Pat has touched."
"Every once in a while we'll get an email from an individual that says, 'Because of what Pat Summitt did, either I myself or a family member embraced the notion that they need to go see someone because they might have Alzheimer's as well.' They're reaching out to say — she inspired them to live their lives while they can. To me, that captured what Pat wanted to do. It shows the impact she's having on individuals' lives."
Last Modified: July 15, 2016, 8:59 am