Alzheimer’s patients ill-informed, need to be ready for positive developments

Alzheimer’s disease has been the focus of medical research for decades. This devastating disease attacks the brain and results in the loss of memories and impairment of cognitive functions to the point of negatively impacting daily life. It is a progressive illness, starting with signs like poor judgment, personality changes, and getting lost. As the disease becomes severe, patients are typically unable to function normally and will spend most of their time in bed as their body begins to shut down. There is no cure for the disease, despite the best efforts of researchers. Still, developments are constantly in the works to get ever closer to that elusive answer.

The fountain of youth – in a pill?

Researchers are forming a trial to test treating elderly participants with metformin, a common type 2 diabetes drug. The goal is to see if this drug will also prevent or delay the formation of other chronic diseases. Those designing the trial hope that the FDA will be motivated to consider aging a preventable condition, which would in turn cause pharmaceutical companies to develop more drugs that help combat the negative effects of aging.

The project came together after a study compared how long those taking metformin lived compared to those taking another common diabetes drug. People taking metformin lived longer than those taking sulphonylurea, as well as some of the nondiabetic control population. Metformin targets chemicals produced by certain cells that develop as people age or at the site of age-related diseases like the brain, which is affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

Project planners feel that the best way to fight the negative aspects of aging is to approach the entire biological process. Simply preventing one disease might allow people to live longer, but that increases their risk of developing another major illness. The goal of the research is to improve the final years, maybe even decades of life.

 Restoring memories using ultrasounds

Alzheimer’s is associated with the buildup of a certain type of plaque in the brain that blocks neuron connections. Efforts at removing this plaque from the brain with drugs have proven ineffective, but Australian researchers have discovered a possible alternative. When high frequency sound waves generated by scanning ultrasound reached the brains of affected mice, microloglial cells that act as an immune protector of the central nervous system consumed the toxic plaque. Following the treatment, the researchers made an exciting discovery – memory function was restored to that of healthy mice. They are uncertain if the removal of plaque will also restore functions like motor control and decision-making, but are continuing to test the treatment method to better understand its effects.

This noninvasive treatment could avoid the use of expensive drugs and provide an inexpensive treatment plan for the aging population. Although human trials are expected to be at least two years away, a large ultrasound machine is being developed that would allow testing to be conducted on sheep. Researchers are also exploring the possibility of treating other neurodegenerative conditions with this method.

Patients left out of treatment decisions

These new developments are promising, but a recent study reveals alarming news about patient involvement in their own care. The Alzheimer’s Association found that over half of patients and their caregivers have never been informed by doctors that they have developed the disease. Thousands of Medicare beneficiaries completed annual surveys that were compared to their Medicare claims. Only 45 percent of patients with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis on claim forms had been told of their condition, and 53 percent of caregivers completing surveys for the Alzheimer’s patient knew of the diagnosis. This is a stark contrast to more than 90 percent of patients with cardiovascular diseases or various cancers being informed of their diseases, and 72 percent of beneficiaries with Parkinson’s.

Beth Kallmyer, vice president of constituent services for the Alzheimer’s Association, felt that the lack of transparency “means that people are being robbed of the opportunity to make important decisions about their lives.” Other experts find that patients are relieved to have a confirmed diagnosis after suspecting that something was wrong. Physician guidelines recommend that the diagnosis is given delicately, but in terms clear enough to set expectations and provide options. As more treatment methods are developed and science hopefully approaches a cure, patient awareness and involvement are necessary.