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Alzheimer’s is an irreversible, progressive form of dementia that slowly destroys memory, cognitive skills, and eventually the ability to perform everyday tasks. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and all types of dementia have been declared “a public-health priority” by the World Health Organization.

Breakthroughs in understanding ­Alzheimer’s are leading to new treatments and preventive approaches — including nutrition, lifestyle, and sleep. (For more on the disease and these prophylactic measures, see “Untangling Alzheimer’s“.)

Separate 2019 and 2020 long-term studies suggest that anticholinergics (aCH), a common class of prescription medications, could increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. These drugs block the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and are used to treat conditions as diverse as depression, urinary incontinence, Parkinson’s, and even seasonal allergies.

Another recent — and hotly debated — advancement purports to slow the disease: In June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) accelerated approval of the first new medication for managing Alzheimer’s in nearly two decades. The lengthy struggle to find effective pharmaceutical treatments reflects “the extraordinarily high failure rate of drugs developed for the illness,” the Washington Post notes.

Aducanumab (marketed by Biogen under the brand name Aduhelm) is a monthly intravenous infusion “predicted” to slow cognitive decline; it will cost as much as $56,000 annually.

“Currently available therapies only treat symptoms of the disease; this treatment option is the first therapy to target and affect the underlying disease process of Alzheimer’s,” explains Patrizia Cavazzoni, MD, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Clinical trials showed that aducanumab could reduce clumps of beta-amyloid protein that form in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

With patients desperate for treatments, the FDA accelerated approval of the drug. Yet there is contentious debate over aducanumab’s effectiveness. Many scientists and Alzheimer’s experts argue that it simply doesn’t live up to Biogen’s claims — and that approval of the drug lowers standards. The FDA is requiring ongoing study to verify anticipated benefits. (For more on the debate, see “PUMPING IRONY: New Hope, Selectively Dispensed“.)

Meanwhile, there is encouragement for families caring for Alzheimer’s patients. To enhance the safety and quality of life for loved ones living with the disease, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has designed a first-of-its-kind, dementia-friendly apartment as a teaching tool and possible model for construction.

Every aspect of the space was considered, and all features have a specific purpose. Paint colors, such as calming blue or energizing ­yellow, easily identify spaces and support their intended function. Furniture, lighting, smart technology, and appliances were all designed for ease of use. Even door handles, silverware, and coffee mugs were engineered specially for dementia ­patients. The model can be visited virtually at www.alzfdn.org/TheApartment.

Alzheimer’s By the Numbers

6.2 million

Number of Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s as of 2021 — that’s one in nine Americans over 65. Meanwhile, 11 million Americans serve as unpaid caregivers; some two-thirds of them are women.

2x

Projected increase in the number of Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by the year 2050 — affecting approximately 14 million people.

$305 billion

The estimated U.S. health­care costs for Alzheimer’s treatment in 2020. By 2030 the costs of dementia may grow to $2 trillion — and “could overwhelm health- and social-care systems,” according to one 2019 study.

This article originally appeared as “Advances in Treating Alzheimer’s” in the November 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Michael
Michael Dregni

Michael Dregni is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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