An enlightened view of Alzheimer's
As medical science advances, so do average life spans. Increasing age, however, is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, which now affects an estimated 4.5 million people in the United States — a number that has more than doubled since 1980. This devastating disorder, usually appearing between the ages of 65 and 85, gradually erodes a person's ability to think, remember, talk and, eventually, engage in daily activities in a meaningful way.
The team of physicians at the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center is working to help the growing population of elderly with this form of dementia and improve what is known about the disease for the different people who must endure it.
"We noticed that most Alzheimer's research is conducted with Caucasians who have relatively good access to health care," said Dan Mungas, UC Davis professor of neurology and recognized authority in diagnosing and treating Alzheimer's disease. "This means that there were whole segments of the aging population in our region who were not represented in data used to determine treatments and trajectories for the disorder. We wanted to know if there were differences in the onset and progression of the disease for those who are African American, Hispanic or Caucasian and for those who may not have access to quality diagnostic resources."
— Dan Mungas, UC Davis professor of neurology
As a result, the center launched a longitudinal study of ethnically and racially diverse older people in 2002 with a National Institutes of Health grant and a budget of about $1.5 million per year. Outreach specialists recruit participants throughout Northern California in churches, nutrition programs, care facilities — literally everywhere that elderly people congregate. Study participants have varying symptoms, from none to clearly affected with dementia. Building on UC Davis' longtime partnership with Department of Veterans Affairs Northern California Health Care System, the research team is able to evaluate participants at VA hospital sites in Rancho Cordova and Martinez, as well as at UC Davis Health System in Sacramento.
"The VA provides additional facilities for and creates access to clinical and research evaluation for VA study participants," said Mungas.
Charles DeCarli, professor of neurology and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center, said the cooperation with the VA has also helped with retaining participants in the study. There are currently more than 600 patients enrolled in ongoing assessments at the three sites.
While study results will not be available for a while, DeCarli has determined that education and attentive clinical evaluation can have protective effects. The disease appears to be made worse by failure to recognize and treat other age-related conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
"We don't know yet whether or not there are distinctions in Alzheimer's for different people, but we will. And that will be the first step in developing improved treatments. In the meantime, we can provide quality information and help treat some of the other conditions that make the dementia risk worse," DeCarli said.