Understanding Alzheimer's

Friday, July 30th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Could Alzheimer's and heart disease be caused by the same problem? A new theory has been devised on their potential connection. Alzheimer's disease isn't just about losing your keys. It's about forgetting what your keys are for. This mind-robbing disease affects more than three million people in the United States and currently has no cure. Researchers are now looking at the brain's blood vessels to see if they hold the key to solving the Alzheimer's puzzle.

"Dick seemed confused. He'd lose his train of thought," says Linda Bogner-Norton. For the past six years, Linda has watched her loving husband slip away. "He cannot feed himself. He has no intelligible speech. Occasionally he does call my name. he does say `Lin', " said Bogner-Norton. Dick Norton was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at age 62, but his wife thinks it happened sooner. "Dick was able to compensate so much for the early confusion Alzheimer's was causing him," says Linda.

Dr. Mike Mullan is studying the role damaged vessels in the brain might play in Alzheimer's. "There's a small protein called Amyloid that gets deposited in the brains of all cases of folks that suffer from Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Mullan. The Amyloid protein blocks blood vessels starving the brain of oxygen and nutrients. Doctor Mullan's research suggests this destructive process begins years before symptoms appear. "So if we block those mechanisms, if we switch them off, we can stop the effect," he said.

If proven, Alzheimer's could someday be controlled by the same drugs used to treat hypertension and heart disease. The research can't help Dick Norton, but his wife Linda hopes it will help others. For her, the most important thing is caring for the man she fell in love with 15 years ago. "I fall asleep stroking his arm every night. I wake up right next to him everyday. It's very different. My loving and our sharing is different, but it is still there," she said.

Within a year, Dr. Mullan's team will begin a clinical trial on a drug used for heart disease to see if it can have a preventative effect on Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common of all primary dementias and has no known cure. It affects 2.5 to 4 million people annually. As our population ages, more people are at risk for Alzheimer's disease. The disease usually develops in the later years and is marked by a gradual but inevitable deterioration of all mental processes. The cause of Alzheimer's disease is unknown. Death may occur five to 15 years after onset. Widespread destruction of cells occurs in diverse areas of the brain. Here are the stages of deterioration:

* Forgetfulness: Difficulty remembering names or misplaces objects.

* Early confusion: Difficulty traveling, inadequate work performance.

* Early dementia: Forgets addresses, the date and names of close relatives.

* Middle dementia: Forgets name of spouse, major events, suffers incontinence,
experiences personality changes including anxiety,
aggression and lack of concentraion.

* Late dementia: Loses ability to walk, talk, eat and maintain toileting skills.

If the vessels are damages years before dementia is recognized, this theory suggests easier ways to prevent and treat the disease. The University of South Florida researchers are gathering subjects for an upcoming study to test drugs used to treat cardiovascular disease. The goal is to see if these drugs can have a preventative effect on early Alzheimer's. If a patient has a heart attack, usually there is some form of vascular disease that extends elsewhere throughout the body. If the USF theory proves true, vascular problems could put you at increased risk for Alzheimer's disease.

For more information contact:

Amy Mussendan, James Humphrey or Laila Abdulla
Roskamp Institute
University of South Florida
3515 E. Fletcher Avenue
Tampa, Florida 33613
(813) 974-3722