While cures and vaccines remain elusive, the head of research at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health says progress is being made in the fights against Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders.
Dr. Aaron Ritter, the center’s director of clinical trials, told State of Nevada that the understanding of brain disorders continues to grow, and he is positive researchers are getting closer to more effective treatments.
A new treatment the center is working on involves drugs that trigger the body's own immune system to target the amyloid plaques that scientists believe contribute to the disease.
"It's a very targeted therapy that goes directly to those amyloid plaques and allows the body's own immune system to clear those plaques from the brain," he said, "It is a very promising therapy."
While some of the initial testing shows the new drug clears out plaques, Dr. Ritter noted it doesn't mean the patient will get their memory back. He said treating the disease is a lot more complex than just addressing amyloid plaques.
The department's Cellular and Molecular Brain Research Laboratory is looking at several areas that researchers believe contribute to the disease and its progression.
Besides the plaques, there are also tangles of a protein known as tau. Those two problems are believed to combine to cause a third complexity - inflammation of the brain tissue.
Kinney and his team are working on better understanding how those three factors work together and how they contribute to the disease. They are also working on better and less invasive tests to detect the disease earlier.
While a lot of progress has been made over the past 20 years, he admits that finding a treatment for the disease is a slow process.
"We would all like to have the answer by now but it is moving forward. It's just science is slow," he said, "One of the things that limits science sometimes is getting people to participate in the research, getting resources to be able to do this research."
Both Kinney and Ritter agree that the willingness of rank-and-file Nevadans to participate in the drug trials the center conducts at its downtown Las Vegas offices could help move the process along.
The center is looking for people who might have a family history of Alzheimer's or other formers of dementia but currently aren't showing any symptoms.
While family history is a contributing factor, Dr. Ritter notes that genetics doesn't mean someone will definitely get the disease. There are other factors that contribute, including cardiovascular health and diabetes.
He said people in their 30s and 40s should be working now to reduce their risk of getting the disease.
"Avoiding diabetes, exercise, using your brain," he said, "There is a study from USC that showed two in five cases of Alzheimer's disease... are preventable through learning a new instrument or learning a new language, keeping your brain active, keeping your body healthy because those are all things that increase your risk."
An increase in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and a population that is living longer have all contributed to the increase in the number of people diagnosed with the disease.
With more people with the disease, there are more family members lending a hand to ailing parents or grandparents.
Marissa Shoop works for Nevada Senior Services, a nonprofit that provides supportive services for people living with the disease and their caregivers.
"Navigating Alzheimer's disease can be very challenging," she said, "Caregivers take a lot of load. Family caregivers, they are the friends and families of individuals. In Nevada, according to the Alzheimer's Association, about 151,000 caregivers are caring for people living with Alzheimer's disease or related dementias."
Shoop and Nevada Senior Services provide all kinds of help to caregivers and individuals, including adult daycare to give caregivers some respite and homemaker services for people with the disease, who are living on their own.
The Alzheimer's Association expects 64,000 people in the state to be diagnosed with the disease in five years, which is a 42 percent increase over the current total of 45,000.
With a growing number of diagnoses, Dr. Ritter believes everyone should understand that Alzheimer's disease is a public health emergency.
"If you plan to live over the age of 60 years old, the reality is we're all at risk of Alzheimer's disease," he said, "It's not necessarily just genetic disease. It's a disease of humans that live a long time, over the age of 60."
Dr. Aaron Ritter, director of clinical trials, Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health; Jefferson Kinney, founding chair, UNLV Department of Brain Health; Marissa Shoop, manager, Care Partner Institute