Alzheimer's disease was a mystery to Bernard Baudin when his younger sister was diagnosed with the form of dementia while in her 50s. 

Baudin, 69, of Metairie, knew the disease caused memory loss, but he didn't realize the extent to which it kills brain cells and slowly cripples the body along with the mind. 

"It's serious stuff," Baudin said. "I see what my sister's going through, and it's trouble."

While little can be done to halt the effects of early onset Alzheimer's disease in his sister, Baudin wanted to find a way to help. Six months ago, he joined a study with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center that questions whether high blood pressure is connected to the disease. 

"Maybe there is something they can find in the study to help in the future, particularly baby boomers like myself," he said. "I might be able to help a little bit.”

The research effort Baudin joined, the Risk Reduction for Alzheimer's Disease, is one of several studies dedicated to the malady at Pennington's Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention. While Pennington is well-known for researching obesity — one of the nation's largest current public health crises — the dementia institute is focused on a coming crisis.  

A form of irreversible dementia, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in America. It has no cure or treatment, said Jeff Keller, the director of the dementia institute at Pennington.

More than 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer's disease now, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Because the disease weakens both the mind and body for several years before death, those affected are cared for primarily by family members, many of whom must miss work, leading to lost wages. This makes Alzheimer's an expensive disease, costing the nation an estimated $259 billion a year, the association reports.

By 2050, the number of Americans diagnosed is expected to rise to 16 million, and the cost could surpass $1.1 trillion.   

"Unless we find a way to prevent this disease from happening, we are going to be stretched to our limits financially, socially and emotionally as to what our country can handle," said Keller.

He came to Pennington in 2008 to found the Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention with the goal of creating a "center of excellence" that could work with the National Institutes of Health and the pharmaceutical industry. Previously, he was the assistant director of a similar Alzheimer's center at the University of Kentucky, but he thought Pennington could fill a hole in dementia research in the Gulf South and draw patients from east Texas to west Florida. 

Today, the institute, which has received $20.1 million in federal, state, corporate and philanthropic money for Alzheimer’s and dementia research, recruits research participants from a four-state area and partners with major drug companies for studies. 

When Mae McGuffery, of Baton Rouge, joined the risk reduction study at Pennington, she wanted to help researchers learn more about the disease. McGuffery's mother died after a 14-year struggle with Alzheimer's, but when she was first diagnosed, the family didn't know what to do. 

"We tried to hide the illness with mom because of the embarrassment we felt," said McGuffery, who is in her 70s. "It's sad we would go through that."

That lack of understanding about the disease extends to the medical community. In recent years, research has changed the way doctors view Alzheimer's, Keller said. 

"We were mistaken for the better part of three decades in thinking that Alzheimer's was one disease," Keller said. "It's turning out that there are many different types of presentations and causes."

With researchers across the nation studying Alzheimer's disease, Keller is optimistic they can find a treatment. However, the most promising research, he said, focuses on preventing the disease. 

The risk reduction study recruits patients older than 60 who have high blood pressure and don't show signs of dementia but have concerns about developing memory loss. Participants exercise and take medication while doctors chart their cognitive abilities. 

Most people have never considered the blood pressure's effect on the brain, Keller said. 

"It may be easy for people to understand that high blood pressure affects many organs," Keller said. "We study it primarily for its effects on kidneys and vessel diseases of the body, but it shouldn’t be surprising that it negatively impacts the brain."

Along with risk reduction, the institute is seeking ways to reduce beta amyolid, pieces of protein that clump together and form plaques in the brain. In other studies, Pennington researchers are constantly screening people with dementia and those with apparently healthy brains so they can compare cognitive changes that go along with aging. 

Along with developing preventative measures and possibly a treatment for Alzheimer's, Keller hopes that research will raise the level of awareness for the disease that is common yet little understood. 

"It's shocking to me as someone on the front lines that we are not discussing this every day," Keller said. "This is a top priority."


Join a study 

The Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention at Pennington Biomedical Research Center has a study for almost anyone who wants to be involved in dementia research. To learn more, visit http://idrp.pbrc.edu/ or call (225) 763-2973.

  • Louisiana Aging Brain Study: This study screens those over the age of 60 who do not have a diagnosis of dementia. The goal of the study is to chart the relationships between mobility and cognitive change over time. 
  • Jo Lamar Dementia Study: Focuses on people diagnosed with dementia. Researchers can measure the patient's risk of falls and cognitive function and possibly direct them toward drug trials. 
  • Risk Reduction for Alzheimer's Disease: The program recruits people with high blood pressure who are over 60 and do not show signs of Alzheimer's disease. Participants should be concerned about the disease, either because of memory loss or because a family member has been diagnosed. 
  • Early: The Early study looks at those 55 to 85 who do not show signs of Alzheimer's disease but have increased risk factors for it. Some participants will receive medication designed to reduce levels of beta amylolid, pieces of protein that clump in the brain. 
  • A4: Targeted at people 60 and older who do not show signs of Alzheimer's disease, the study questions whether the immune system can remove beta amyloids in the brain. 

Follow Kyle Peveto on Twitter, @kylepeveto.