Alzheimer's disease, whose course ends inexorably in the destruction of memory and reason, is in many respects America's most debilitating disease. As I wrote in my article, "Rethinking Alzheimer's," just published in our flagship magazine Stanford Medicine:
Barring substantial progress in curing or preventing it, Alzheimer's will affect 16 million U.S. residents by 2050, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The group also reports that the disease is now the nation's most expensive, costing over $200 billion a year. Recent analyses suggest it may be as great a killer as cancer or heart disease.
Alarming as this may be, it isn't the only news about Alzheimer's. Some of the news is good.
Serendipity and solid science are prying open the door to a new outlook on what is arguably the primary scourge of old age in the developed world. Researchers have been taking a new tack - actually, more like six or seven new tacks - resulting in surprising discoveries and potentially leading to novel diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.
As my article noted, several Stanford investigators have taken significant steps toward unraveling the tangle of molecular and biochemical threads that underpin Alzheimer's disease. The challenge: weaving those diverse strands into the coherent fabric we call understanding.
In a sidebar, "Sex and the Single Gene," I described some new work showing differential effects of a well-known Alzheimer's-predisposing gene on men versus women - and findings about the possibly divergent impacts of different estrogen-replacement formulations on the likelihood of contracting dementia.
Coming at it from so many angles, and at such high power, is bound to score a direct hit on this menace eventually. Until then, the word is to stay active, sleep enough and see a lot of your friends.
Previously: The reefer connection: Brain's "internal marijuana" signaling implicated in very earliest stages of Alzheimer's pathology, The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice's memory and learning, Protein known for initiating immune response may set up our brains for neurodegenerative disease, Estradiol - but not Premain - prevents neurodegeneration in woman at heightened dementia risk and Having a copy of ApoE4 gene variant doubles Alzheimer's risk for women, but not for men
Illustration by Gérard DuBois