Reagan's Death Renews Alzheimer's Interest

Advocates hope it means more research money

THURSDAY, June 10, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- While the elaborate rituals of national respect for former President Ronald Reagan will come to a close tomorrow, the Reagan family's dedication to raising awareness about Alzheimer's disease shows no signs of ending.

Reagan's death Saturday following a long decline from the disease is likely to result in a higher profile for the devastating condition and, experts hope, more money for research that could lead to better treatments or even a cure. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan has been at the forefront of that effort for almost a decade.

"The Reagan family has already had a profound impact on this field," said Dr. Paul S. Aisen, a professor of neurology and medicine and director of the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "I hope indeed that all of the publicity surrounding his death will renew interest and enthusiasm for research into Alzheimer's and reaching this goal of stopping the disease, of halting its progression, which is really within our reach."

Currently, 4.5 million people in the United States suffer from Alzheimer's, and the Alzheimer's Association predicts that number will rise to 7.7 million by 2030. Sufferers slowly but surely lose their memory and mental functions.

Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer's Disease Month in 1983. In 1994, he announced publicly that he had been diagnosed with the disease, telling Americans that "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life." He noted then that by going public, the Reagans encouraged more people to seek treatment. In 1995, they created the Alzheimer's Association Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute.

Although no cure or effective treatment for Alzheimer's has yet been found, experts do point to a series of important successes over the decade since Reagan went public with his disease.

The first drug for Alzheimer's, Cognet, was approved just before his momentous announcement. Since then, four more drugs have been approved. None represent a cure but, Aisen said, "they do improve cognition, improve symptoms, stabilize function and reduce the occurrence of behavioral problems that can be very devastating to families and delay the need for institutionalization."

The focus of research now is to attack Alzheimer's at its cause: the buildup of amyloid beta peptide, which is the major component of the plaque that eventually overtakes the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

In that quest, stem cells are but one approach and probably not even the most important one. "It's really such a preliminary line of investigation that it's too early to tell whether that will be promising or not," said Dr. Laurel Coleman, a board member of the Alzheimer's Association.

"In Alzheimer's disease, we think we know the precise cause of the disease and we can get at that cause without stem cells," Aisen added.

Nancy Reagan, opposing the stance of the current White House, has called for President Bush to lift his limit on stem cell research. But the current First Lady, Laura Bush, yesterday reiterated the policy, which severely restricts the lines of available stem cells and refuses to fund research that would destroy embryos. "We have to be really careful between what we want to do for science and what we should do ethically," she told CBS News.

Other areas of research seem more promising, Coleman stated.

One is the development of the "Pittsburgh Compound," which can label the amyloid protein so that it shows up on a scan. This allows earlier diagnoses and earlier delivery of potentially helpful drugs, Coleman said.

Scientists are also experimenting with ways to target the amyloid protein itself, through existing mediations, new medications and possibly even a vaccine.

Finally, experts now have a better understanding of how lifestyle issues may affect the onset of a disease like Alzheimer's. "There is a growing appreciation of how important our circulatory system is to the health of our brain and its ability to hold off a disease like Alzheimer's," Coleman said. That makes controlling hypertension, weight, cholesterol and diabetes all the more important.

While the Alzheimer's Association has asked Congress for $40 million more in funding for Alzheimer's research, just a day before Reagan's passing, 58 senators have urged Bush to ease federal restrictions on stem cell research, the Associated Press reported. Reagan's death, some of the senators said later, only emphasized the need for this type of research.

"I hope this huge amount of interest in President Reagan and what he and his family went through over the last decade will help focus interest and effort and maybe NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding," Aisen said. "Additional government funding would accelerate the process that is well under way to defeat Alzheimer's disease."

More information

The Alzheimer's Association has a Maintain Your Brain program.

SOURCES: Paul S. Aisen, M.D., professor, neurology and medicine, and director, Memory Disorders Program, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, D.C.; Laurel Coleman, M.D., board member, Alzheimer's Association, and geriatrician, Augusta, Maine; Associated Press; CBS News
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