Dementia in the News

The Gray Wave. The Silver Tsunami. The Agequake.

Aging societies have been on the horizon for decades, not just in the United States but also around the world. The driving forces are well-established: falling fertility rates (by far, the most important factor), longer life expectancy, and the maturing of large cohorts such as the baby boomers in the U.S.

Sheriff Chris Caulk was frightened.

He couldn’t see, at least not well enough to read or orient himself, and his feet ached from the popcorn kernels rattling around inside his socks. The oven mitts on his hands made it hard for him to grasp anything.

Caulk, who patrols in rural Isanti County, Minn., was experiencing something of what it is like to be elderly and suffer from dementia - and he was taken aback by how vulnerable he felt.

“My mind was clear, but my body wouldn’t let me do [things],” Caulk said. “It must be extremely scary.”

Proteins can fold in different ways depending on their environment. These different configurations change the function of the protein; misfolding is frequently associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

They’ve heard the stark facts, that every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease, that the numbers of Americans with the illness may nearly triple by 2050, that there still is no cure.

But this is what many in the gathering Wednesday at Massachusetts General Hospital wanted to know: What are researchers doing to help the millions of people living with the brain-robbing illness right now? Is anyone paying attention to their intense feelings of isolation, and of being shunned?

MIT researchers are developing a computer system that uses genetic, demographic, and clinical data to help predict the effects of disease on brain anatomy.

In experiments, they trained a machine-learning system on MRI data from patients with neurodegenerative diseases and found that supplementing that training with other patient information improved the system’s predictions. In the cases of patients with drastic changes in brain anatomy, the additional data cut the predictions’ error rate in half, from 20 percent to 10 percent.

Walt Whitman’s famous line, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” has gained a new level of biological relevance.

As we grow, our brain cells develop different genomes from one another, according to new research from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Add another notch to the evidence that an unhealthy heart can harm the brain. In the September 21 JAMA Neurology, researchers led by M. Arfan Ikram of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, report that having atrial fibrillation, a common cardiovascular disease in older adults, was associated with an elevated risk of developing dementia over the next 20 years.

Fibrous protein clumps known as amyloids are most often associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, where they form characteristic plaques in the brain.

Scientists first described amyloids about 150 years ago; they have since been tagged as key players in Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as Alzheimer’s. However, recent findings suggest that this class of proteins may also have critical biological functions in healthy cells.

We talk a lot these days about what constitutes a good way to die. There’s also much discussion about the art of healthy aging.

But largely absent from the conversation are all the people between the two. People who aren’t dying but who grow more frail. People who have significant health concerns. People who suddenly find themselves in need of care.

People who are, by and large, miserable.

"Is it Alzheimer's?" That's the common first question whispered by people who see their parents develop confusion, garbled speech and loss of memory. A fair concern, since Alzheimer's is at the root of 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases. A frequent second question: "Will I get it, too?"

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