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Nevada, home to top neurology center, has third-fastest rate of growth for Alzheimer’s disease

Cleveland Clinic
Cleveland Clinic Nevada and Keep Memory Alive/Facebook

Right now, Nevada has the third-fastest rate of growth for Alzheimer’s disease. Between now and 2025, the number of Nevadans with dementia is expected to grow almost 31% from 49,000 to 64,000.

By 2050, Nevada will need nearly three times as many who train doctors to care for older people; and six times as many geriatricians overall.

Alzheimers has been in the mind of popular culture at least since the early 1980s; in 1983, June was named Alzheimers Brain and Awareness Month.

At the same time, Las Vegas has one of the top 10 neurology centers in the country: the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. It opened in 2010.

Dr. Aaron Ritter is with the Lou Ruvo Center. Also with us are Dr. Jefferson Kinney, founding chair of UNLV’s department of brain health, and Phil Kalsman of the Desert Southwest Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Kalsman said our aging population has a huge factor in the projected rate increase.

“We've known that the storm is coming. And we are now doing our best to anticipate the needs of our aging population,” he said.

According to Kinney, genetics for most Alzheimer’s patients “really is about conferring some risk.” For 95% of cases, there are genes that increase the risk to develop it, but isn’t causal, he said.

The risk jumps exponentially at age 65. “The reality is, everyone on the face of the earth is at risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Ritter. He said what keeps the brain healthy is physical exercise, keeping the blood vessels healthy.

All the doctors reference “plaques” which are associated with the disease. Ritter said they believe amyloid plaques are what build up in the brain over time. Researchers don’t know why exactly they build up, and while genetics help explain, it’s not the full answer.

“It’s a baffling disease,” Ritter said referring to how some develop plaques but never have symptoms.

Ritter said most of Kinney’s work is looking at blood markers to see what’s going on in the brain. While they’ve made a lot of progress, they’re just scratching the surface.

“We have these interdisciplinary teams that are looking at several different layers of the disease from very basic cellular and molecular mechanisms, all the way through clinical presentations and imaging,” Kinney said. “And what that really gives rise to is some amazing insight and amazing discoveries. The lab, for 15 years, there's been a tremendous emphasis on inflammation in neurodegenerative disease, and in particular Alzheimer's disease. And this is part of our research, because it's become very clear that inflammatory processes in the brain actually facilitate the pathology of what we see in Alzheimer's disease.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the pandemic contributed to a 17% increase in Alzheimer’s and dementia deaths.

Ritter said isolation was “the worst thing we can do to folks when they’re sick … I think there is something about bridge, there's something about playing a musical instrument, there's something about learning a new language, there's something about going for a walk or going to exercise, we see the rates mirror the health of the population in general.”

At the Lou Ruvo Center, Ritter said they tested the first FDA approved medication for the treatment of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, a monoclonal antibody to the amyloid plaques. Now, he said new therapies come out every day.

Kalsman said the medication is groundbreaking, but it’s also expensive. His group advocates on behalf of families and patients for the affordability of those treatments.

They're also working on getting the conversation started around the unpaid caregivers of these patients, and the economic impact of that. He said 48,00 people care for Alzheimer's patients in Nevada, and one third of those caregivers are daughters. 

"When we think about the economic impact of the time off work, for many of them, we have multi-generational families, they're taking time off work, they're running out of PTO, or their sick time. They're maybe having to leave work because of the care that is needed at home," Kalsman said. "So that has a huge impact. And, you know, that's not going to get better anytime soon."

They’ve also recently started public service announcements that describe the 10 warning signs to look for: Disruptive memory loss, planning challenges, difficulty completing familiar tasks, confusion with time or place, trouble understanding spatial relationships or visual images, new problems with words in speaking or writing, misplacing things, decreased or poor judgement, withdrawal from work or social activities and changes in mood and personality.

For more information on Alzheimer's disease, click here

Aaron Ritter, doctor, Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health;  Jefferson W. Kinney, founding chair, UNLV’s department of brain health; Phil Kalsman, community executive, Desert Southwest Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association

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Dave Berns, now a producer for State of Nevada, recently returned to KNPR after having previously worked for the station from 2005 to 2009.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the online editor for Nevada Public Radio. She curates content on, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.