If I were to ask Louisianians to tell me what some of the primary behavioral causes of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and strokes are, chances are good you could give me some accurate answers. Bad diet, lack of exercise, stress, tobacco use, high blood pressure, even genetics might be among your answers. And you would be correct.
Then if I asked about the main causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, you might name some of the above possibilities — and so would many in the Alzheimer’s research community. But there could be many more possible causes.
We aren’t sure of anything yet when it comes to prevention and cure. We are frustratingly unsure, in fact. The outcome of several large studies over the years is a big blow to Alzheimer’s patients, family members and all of us in research.
Yet we’ll find answers only if we continue to test our best ideas rigorously — in team efforts between researchers and clinical trial participants, and through public-private partnerships. Clinical studies are essential. Thinking creatively is mandatory.
I came to Baton Rouge after serving as assistant director of one of the nation’s most successful Alzheimer’s disease research centers. I now work at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center, where I head the Institute for Dementia Research & Prevention. I took the job so that I could build my own Alzheimer’s disease center from the ground up and to develop a balanced study portfolio encompassing prevention, treatment and care.
At Pennington, we have world-class facilities and are considered one of the best clinical research models in the country. The community made major contributions as well by providing resources, including seed funding, collaborations and people willing to participate in clinical trials. As a result, we have been able to manage a roster of up to 11 clinical trials every year since 2011.
Recent state-by-state statistics released by the Alzheimer’s Association show a 170 percent increase in Alzheimer’s-related deaths in Louisiana since 2000, and that we incurred more than $3 billion in unpaid Alzheimer’s-related caregiver costs in 2018.
So as we enter the age of Alzheimer’s, it’s critically important that clinical researchers consider all ideas on the table and be willing to explore concepts coming from outside the established Alzheimer’s scientific community. Traditional approaches have provided valuable incremental advances, but not much close to definitive treatments or prevention strategies.
Innovations could well come from institutions such as Pennington that are most able to navigate public-private opportunities and adapt. We need to continue forming and testing new ideas.
The starting point for preventing dementia, if there is one, is knowing that dementia prevention strategies are for everyone. It’s never too early to start, because it’s never too early to behave in ways that are proven good for you — healthy diet, exercise, etc.
We also can’t forget those already affected by Alzheimer’s, the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Nearly 6 million people nationwide are afflicted, with that number expected to nearly triple by 2050. Related to that demographic, a new initiative we’re advancing at Pennington is the T2 Protect AD study, which is happening at more than 40 clinical sites across the country.
The T2 study is testing whether a drug can slow or stop memory and thinking problems in people diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. We can’t prevent, treat or manage any disease without study participants for clinical trials. Our ideas are just that — ideas — until tested and proven, which requires participants. We need the public to help. The first person cured of Alzheimer’s will likely come from a clinical trial.
Louisiana can make a difference in the assault on Alzheimer’s disease, using the same creative determination with which we’ve persevered so often and accomplished so much. Let’s go after Alzheimer’s together, because that’s how it will get done.
To find out more about clinical trial participation at Pennington, visit http://idrp.pbrc.edu or call 225-763-2973.
Jeffrey Keller heads the Institute for Dementia Research & Prevention at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center.