The threat of Alzheimer’s disease looms over an aging America, but could a cure be in the offing? And if so, how soon?
Experts say the answer is “yes” — and by the year 2025. That’s the date they’re shooting for, anyway.
Much as President Kennedy once vowed to send a man to the moon by the year 1970, the federal government now is putting billions of dollars behind a national mandate to find effective treatments for Alzheimer’s by 2025.
Researchers at more than 70 sites nationwide, including two here in New Jersey, have banded together to help achieve that ambitious goal.
But if you are an older adult concerned about memory loss and the growing threat of dementia, you can play a part, too.
Torie Pendleton, program manager for Acti-v8 Your Brain, says there are steps you can take right now to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s. What’s more, you might be able to help scientists find a cure sooner by volunteering to take part in research going on right here in New Jersey, she says.
“We are not going to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and all of these other cognitive diseases that affect so many people unless we can get more people to participate in clinical trials,” Pendleton says.
Acti-v8 Your Brain is an initiative developed by the Global Alzheimer’s Platform Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about Alzheimer’s prevention while at the same time speeding up the search for a cure by supporting innovative research.
The Acti-v8 program draws its name from the eight pillars of brain health that it espouses, including exercise, nutrition and cognitive stimulation.
“We talk about things like getting enough sleep, exercising your brain, connecting with friends and family, relaxing and reducing stress and controlling our risk factors,” Pendleton says. “But our eighth pillar, the thing that makes us a little different, is that we also talk about getting involved in research.”
To help advance Alzheimer’s research and get more volunteers involved in it, the GAP Foundation has brought together a network of 71 academic and private research centers in North America.
New Jersey is well-represented in that effort. Both the Princeton Medical Institute, founded by Dr. Jeffrey T. Apter, and the Cognitive and Research Center of New Jersey, founded by Dr. Michelle Papka, are part of the collaborative.
On the national level, the network includes such renowned names as the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic.
Pendleton says the national reach of the research network means that as she travels across the country to give presentations on brain health and prevention of dementia, she has the added advantage of referring people to research centers near them.
“When I go out and give really practical, every-day ideas about what it is that people can do to maintain brain health, I’m able to help people on the front end live healthier lives and make good choices,” she says.
“But then I actually have that second opportunity to lead them in a direction where they actually get help,” she says. “I have the ability to point them to people like Dr. Apter and Dr. Pakpa, and these organizations quite often offer free memory screenings. They offer a lot of support that people just do not know is out there.”
Apter, who has been involved in Alzheimer’s research for more than 30 years, says the Princeton Medical Institute offers memory testing on an ongoing basis.
“Every day of the week, we offer free memory screening,” he says. “We offer it to anyone who calls here. You don’t have to participate in a research study. This is available to anyone.”
For that matter, better brain health is available to everyone, too. It’s all about embracing healthy habits that have been shown to help keep your mind sharp and give you a greater chance of fending off dementia.
The eight pillars of cognitive health taught through the Acti-v8 Your Brain initiative are:
- Eat well – Including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, lean meat and fish.
- Stay physically active – Keeping your body moving has been shown to improve brain health and overall health, give you more energy and improve strength and balance.
- Get a good night’s sleep — A lack of sleep can affect memory and attention.
- Exercise your brain — Keep your mind challenged by engaging in such activities as reading, playing games, working puzzles, doing volunteer work or finding a new hobby.
- Connect with friends and family — People who have greater social interaction score higher on tests of memory and executive function.
- Reduce stress — Consider activities such as meditation, yoga or tai chi, which can help protect you from the brain-damaging effects of chronic stress.
- Control risk factors — Chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and depression can affect cognition, so it is important to be treated for them.
- Get involved in research — Many types of research are seeking volunteers, and if you can find one that you are eligible for, you could potentially benefit yourself and others by participating in a study.
When it comes to Alzheimer’s research, the Princeton Medical Institute has a track record of contributing to clinical breakthroughs.
“We’ve been at the forefront of this for a long time,” Apter says. “We were involved in the approvals for Aricept, Namenda an Exelon.”
So far, only a handful of drugs have been approved for the treatment of Alzheimer’s, and those are three of them. Such drugs do not prevent, reverse or cure Alzheimer’s, but they do help ease some of the symptoms.
It’s now been well over a decade since a new drug was discovered for Alzheimer’s, but Apter and other researchers are encouraged by the progress being made with promising new treatments. He and researchers gathered at GAP Foundation meeting in Nashville recently, and Apter said it is invigorating to see all the innovative approaches now underway.
“I’m very excited,” he says. “The science is getting very advanced.”
But there still are challenges to finding the blockbuster drug that scientists are looking for, and one of the biggest barriers is a shortage of volunteers for clinical trials. The New York Times reported that 90 percent of Alzheimer’s drug studies are falling short of the participants they need.
Experts say getting these studies fully enrolled at a faster pace could cut years off the time it take to find treatments for Alzheimer’s.
The GAP Foundation was launched in 2016 to raise money from charitable organizations and drug companies and focus that funding on new ways to improve the quality of drug trials and speed up the search for a cure.
But that can only happen if research sites become more successful in finding people who have concerns about memory loss, make sure they get the proper diagnosis and treatment, and then pair them with clinical trials in their area that they may be eligible for.
If you or a loved one is experiencing cognitive problems that you find worrisome, Apter encourages you to call the Princeton Medical Institute at (609)-921-6050 to ask about free memory screening.
For older adults, there are many advantages to getting your memory tested. It may show your memory problems are minor and normal for you age, and that can be a huge relief.
Or it may detect a concern, but further evaluation may show the cognitive problem is actually caused by a medical condition that can be treated, such as a thyroid problem, or a vitamin deficiency, or a sleep disorder or depression.
And if the problem is cognitive impairment or dementia, detecting it early has many benefits, including the opportunity to be considered for a clinical trial, which can not only potentially benefit you, but others who come after you.
“We surveyed all of our patients who were in our clinical trials, and they say the No. 1 reason for them is altruism,” Apter says.
“There isn’t a drug on the market that helps prevents the progression, so we need people to participate in the studies,” he says. “They are helping themselves, and definitely they are contributing to medical science. I think that’s the major reason people participate.”
Another advantage of participating in a clinical trial is the opportunity to receive a high level of medical care at no cost to you.
“You get a tremendous workup,” Apter says. “We do a blood workup during the studies. We do MRIs, EKGs and we release all these results to your medical doctor. We don’t take the place of your doctor, but we don’t mind sharing. We are very collaborative. We have a lot of doctors who refer patients to us.”
Interested in learning more or volunteering for a clinical trial? Here some good resources:
The Princeton Medical Institute offers free memory screening.
The Cognitive and Research Center of New Jersey also offers free memory screening.
The National Institutes of Health offers a database of privately and publicly funded clinical trials worldwide here:https://clinicaltrials.gov/
The Global Alzheimer’s Platform Foundation website also offers information on clinical trials: https://globalalzplatform.org/
Acti-v8 Your Brain showcases information on ways to improve cognitivie health and reduce the risk of dementia: https://memorystrings.org/activ8yourbrain
Originally posted on NJ.com on March 26, 2019.