With the American population living longer, Alzheimer’s disease is becoming more prevalent. According to a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, about half of those older than 85, or 5.2 million people, suffer from the disease. The current cost to the American economy is about $220 billion a year.
Dr. Huntington Potter, who works in the Department of Neurology and the Linda Crnic Institute for Down syndrome, said that if the disease could be delayed, even by five years, it would decrease the cost significantly.
Potter recognizes that as humans age, various health problems arise, but Alzheimer’s is one of the most expensive conditions because it requires around-the-clock attention in the middle to late stages.
Through their work, Potter and his colleagues have discovered that people with Alzheimer’s have, over the course of their lives, developed Down-Syndrome-like cells throughout their bodies. These cells have three copies of Chromosome 21 rather than two. Those with Down syndrome, who are born with these cells, typically suffer Alzheimer’s in their 30s and dementia in their 40s.
“The brain is very complex, very sophisticated, and until enough nerve cells die, you won’t see symptoms,” Potter said. “So the general belief is that Alzheimer’s disease — whether it be the genetic form, or the form with Down syndrome or just sporadic — it probably starts 20 years before there are any clinical symptoms.”
One of the drugs Potter’s department is researching is Leukine, which is the commercial name for a protein released during rheumatoid arthritis — formally known as granulocyte macrophage colony-stimulating factor. Potter was interested in the protein because people with rheumatoid arthritis don’t develop Alzheimer’s disease.
With mice, it was observed that this protein reverses cognitive problems and quickly cuts the amyloid deposition in half. It’s uncertain if there is human benefit, as it has only been tested on a small number of people. If it’s proven beneficial for Alzheimer’s, it will be two to three years before it’s available.
Potter estimates Alzheimer’s to be about 70 percent genetic and 30 percent environmental. Potter will be discussing external factors when he speaks in Aspen for te Ideas Festival, at Paepcke Auditorium on Tuesday and the Limelight Hotel on Wednesday. For instance, those who gain higher education or keep their brains active through cognitive exercises have lesser risk of Alzheimer’s than those who don’t.
Coffee, even decaffeinated, is said to be a deterrent, while heavy exercise also helps fend off the disease. Conversely, those who are not physically active and develop diabetes or high blood pressure are more susceptible to Alzheimer’s than their active counterparts.
“What’s good for your brain is good for your heart, and what’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” Potter said.