The Urgency of Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease is more visible today simply because people live longer. By age 80, 40% of people will develop Alzheimer’s — an incidence that doubles every nine years thereafter. The most common form of Alzheimer’s begins to manifest itself at age 66. As baby boomers enter old age, the demographic bulge will exert mounting pressures on society and our health care system. The urgency for investment into answers and therapies couldn’t be greater.
Unfortunately, current Alzheimer’s drugs are 20 years behind the times, based on knowledge prior to the major research breakthroughs at the Douglas. While these drugs are effective on some symptoms in the short term, they do not halt dementia’s merciless progress.
The Douglas, home to one of the top five Alzheimer’s research labs in the world, is pursuing an innovative line of inquiry. According to Dr. Judes Poirier, rather than seeking to “cure” an already damaged brain, we should focus our efforts on identifying high-risk people who display early markers of the disease.
“By the time [the patient] walks into a doctor’s office complaining about memory loss,” explains Dr. Poirier, “60 to 70% of the brain cells are already dead. It’s too late. We need to detect high-risk individuals sooner, before parts of the brain start to degenerate. In other words, we don’t need to cure the disease if we can prevent it.”
Research indicates that if we can delay Alzheimer’s onset by five years, the success rate climbs to 50%. A 10-year delay pushes the success rate — and, therefore, hope — to 95%.
Earlier diagnosis means better outcomes
The current diagnostic tool for Alzheimer’s — 80 to 85% accurate — is a physician-administered questionnaire. Among the Douglas’ research goals is to raise diagnostic accuracy to 99% through a combination of genetic testing, detection of early markers, and the standard questionnaire.
Dr. Poirier’s lab is examining healthy brains and comparing them to those with dementia, in efforts to isolate differences. Among the lab’s major competitive advantages is the Douglas Brain Bank. The eagerly awaited completion of the Douglas Brain Imaging Centre will add fresh impetus to the lab’s work.
“We’re developing tools that help us go back in time,” says Dr. Poirier. “By learning more about the disease’s early onset, it will be far easier to develop highly targeted interventions and to defeat illnesses that are causing untold misery to families around the world.”
Among the Douglas’s most notable efforts is the Centre for Early Intervention and Prevention of Alzheimer’s. Modeled on similar centres in the United States, the Douglas Centre is the first of its kind in Canada.