By Maia Anderson
We’re entering a new era of Alzheimer’s treatment. A panel of experts discussed developments in treating the disease during “Alzheimer’s update: What journalists can learn from latest research” at Health Journalism 2023 in St. Louis.
David Holtzman, M.D., a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis, started the session by clarifying the differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s. Though Alzheimer’s is a leading cause of dementia, responsible for 70% to 75% of cases, it’s not the only cause. A variety of disorders are responsible for the rest of dementia cases, Holtzman said.
A major recent discovery is that amyloid plaques, which are an early marker of Alzheimer’s, can be found in people’s brains as early as 20 years before they show any symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Holtzman said. That’s a good sign, because that means treatments could be developed that would prevent Alzheimer’s from becoming symptomatic.
Panelist Suzanne Schindler, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis, detailed progress made in testing for Alzheimer’s disease. For many years, the only way to officially diagnose Alzheimer’s was post-mortem through an autopsy.
Today, there are multiple testing options, including an amyloid PET scan, which involves injecting a radio tracer into a patient’s brain that can detect amyloid plaques. Alzheimer’s can also be detected via a spinal tap. But the most effective way to treat patients for the disease is through a blood test, according to Schindler.
“This is new development over the last few years,” Schinder said. “I think it is going to transform the field.”
There are currently two Alzheimer’s blood tests available, and even more effective tests will likely be available soon, Schindler said.
Panelist Bryan James, an epidemiologist at Rush University’s Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago, discussed recent findings showing the importance of social and environmental risk factors of Alzheimer’s. Remaining socially engaged in older age may be key in helping curb development of the disease, James said. Diet and nutrition, smoking, sleep, depression, and a feeling of purpose in life may also be risk factors of Alzheimer’s.
Overall, the panelists expressed optimism in the future of treating Alzheimer’s disease and the possibility for upcoming breakthroughs in the field.
Maia Anderson is a Los Angeles-based health care journalist at Morning Brew, where she helps write a health care b2b newsletter called Healthcare Brew. She was a 2023 AHCJ-California Health Journalism Fellow.