More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, and the nonprofit Alzheimer's Association projects that, barring major advances, 11 million to 16 million will have it by 2050 - at an annual cost of $1.1 trillion in today's dollars. In May, the government announced the first national plan to combat Alzheimer's, and one focus is the role of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, a leading suspect in this form of dementia. U.S. News spoke about progress against the disease with a leading researcher in the field, Reisa Sperling, head of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. Excerpts:
WHAT DO YOU SEE UNFOLDING OVER THE NEXT COUPLE OF DECADES?
What we have now is what I would term "symptomatic therapy." Drugs that are FDA-approved for Alzheimer's disease help people stay functional a bit longer, but they're not really slowing the underlying disease process. I actually am optimistic about the outlook over the next 10 to 20 years, because I think we are realizing that Alzheimer's disease can be detected a decade before people have symptoms. That will allow us to move into the same type of prevention strategy that has been successful in cancer and heart disease.