Jul 242012

This post originally appeared on the ChicagoNow blog, “Ask Dr. Chill: Practical Answers to the Toughest Caregiving Questions.” It is being reposted here with the author’s permission.

Alas, I was not able to attend the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver this month, but I did follow it closely on the organization’s website. The event attracted over 4,300 scientists, physicians and other professionals in the Alzheimer’s community who gathered to discuss findings from their most recent batches of research.

If your eyes tend to glaze over when you read news blurbs about complicated research, I don’t blame you. The sheer amount of news these days certainly can induce medical information overload.

As an antidote, I offer my Cliff Notes version of the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference:

  • A couple of risk factors emerged, including  late-life binge drinking, changes in gait (walking patterns) and sleep changes(Note: A risk factor implies a correlation between the factor and eventual onset of the disease — it does not imply causality. Just because something is associated with something else does not mean that one causes the other.)
  • Several treatments showed promise, including experimental drug EVP-6124, intravenous immunoglobulin, medical food Souvenaid, dietary supplement citicoline, and home-based care coordination. (Note: Treatment studies focus on treating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s after the disease process is already underway. There is no evidence that any of these treatments are useful for prevention.)
  • But on the upside, four different studies indicated that targeted exercise training could reduce the risk of developing dementia among older adults who were either cognitively healthy or only had mild cognitive impairment. (Get moving, folks!)
  • Diagnostic advances now allow researchers to better identify people with Alzheimer’s when they are still presymptomatic. That’s right  early brain changes and subtle cognitive problems can now be detected so that a diagnosis of “preclinical” or “presymptomatic” Alzheimer’s disease can be made. Granted, this type of diagnostic accuracy is seen mostly in research settings and has yet to become evident in general medical practice. But what this means is that researchers can now test new drugs among presymptomatic individuals to see if the progression to symptomatic Alzheimer’s can actually be prevented.

As I scoured the event’s press releases, I felt a combination of hope, pride and sadness wash over me. My hope emerges from the incredible strides taken by the Alzheimer’s community that have revealed more about the disease in the past 20 to 30 years than we learned during most of the 20thcentury (Alzheimer’s was first identified in 1906). My pride is rooted in the many years I worked for the organization and my first-hand knowledge of its dedication to ultimately finding an end to this wretched disease.

I didn’t want to feel sadness, but it’s best not to suppress such honest parts of the human experience. My sadness stemmed from my long journey with this disease  both professionally and personally  which has taught me that any measure of hope must be balanced with a healthy dose of realism.

Note that the conference highlighted causes, treatments and prevention  but not cures. We’re simply not there yet. We’re closer to a cure than ever before, but using that emotionally-laden word more than sparingly is still premature. I applaud the organization for always putting out balanced, accurate reports with no spin or pretense.

So be hopeful, but be realistic, too. And remember that the greatest barrier to the development of better treatments is the shortage of participants in Alzheimer’s clinical trials. If you want to add a dose of activism to your mixture of hope and realism, check out the Alzheimer’s Association’s TrialMatch program and find out whether there’s a clinical trial near you.

About Guest Blog Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in caregiving, psychology, and aging. Her blog, “Ask Dr. Chill,” provides practical answers to the toughest caregiving questions.


  5 Responses to “The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference: Balancing Hope with Realism”

  1. Thanks Dr. Steckl for the updates. I’ve been very hopeful especially this month as so many research results have been reported in the media.

  2. I feel your pain and frustration. It is very imapntort to stop your parents from driving. One tactic would be to openly tell him Dad, you do not have the same judgement when driving that you once had, and I’m not only concerned for your safety, but the safety of someone you might injure when distracted. I know giving up driving is a huge thing for people but when you bring in the fact that they may hurt or kill someone innocent, it seems to make more sense to them. It also sounds like they may benefit from some part time care to come in and help them with their medications and possibly morning and evening routines. I care for many people with Dementia and also those who have had to give up driving at the age of 92! I feel for them but I know the roads are much safer without their being on those roads! Best Wishes!

  3. The tough thing with the clinical trials is so many people look at them also on a personal level of hope, even though it is only an experimental research, there are always those people going into it knowing that they may be getting that placebo, not the possible “cure”. That, in itself can weigh out even the money that one is going to get paid to take that leap of faith. It really does take an amazing selfless person to get in on these trials, my hat is off to those individuals, they are what turns the corner for science and new discoveries.
    I know that my dad would gladly have participated in something that would help research, however, he doesn’t qualify for a lot of things due to other health issues, cancer, etc.

    • a few interesting thigns. For one he said he wouldn’t have given that same advice. He also said that his comment because Alzheimer’s is like a death puts you on a slippery slope because you could say this because your spouse isn’t the same person you married, etc., etc., I know he used several other examples. The marriage vows do say sickness and health and to death do us part which I don’t think meant a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s but physical death. I feel sorry for his wife because if she was to get the disease you can bet he would divorce her. Hugs:o)Jane~mom to Nicole, 16 yo, VSD, PAH, Eisenmenger’s, EDS/BHJS

  4. This is a cruel disease that has afflicted my father . Diagnosed 5 years ago . The smartest person that I have personally have ever known. His only sibling perished from this disease back in July . My grandmother died from it 30 years ago. I guess I have this legacy for myself in the future. This disease eats at me and my brother everyday . Physically and emotionally every day .
    I love my dad very much and I lose a piece of him everyday.

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