It is being dubbed an epidemic, one which is fatal but without known prevention or cure.
It is dementia, the most common form of which is Alzheimer's, and is already the single largest cause of disability in Australians aged 65 years or older.
In any other epidemic, governments would pull out all stops to support research to halt it, yet some of the key research institutes are still struggling for funding.
According to the latest report of Access Economics, 57,821 people in WA alone will have dementia by 2030.
Ralph Martins, research director of the McCusker Alzheimer's Research Foundation, said Alzheimer's was an epidemic that would increase because of the ageing population.
Moreover, the rising numbers of people with type 2 diabetes and obesity, which predisposed to Alzheimer's, would add to the epidemic's numbers.Scroll down to read the full story.
However, the good news was that there was an increasing body of knowledge about protective factors, as well as those that raised the risk, such as a high-fat diet and lack of physical activity.The AIBL (Australian Imaging, Biomarker and Lifestyle) study, conducted with 1100 participants in Perth and Melbourne by Professor Martins and others, found those who did the least exercise had the highest levels of insulin and cholesterol, which are risk factors for heart disease and have been linked to Alzheimer's.Those who did the most exercise had the lowest levels.The ongoing study, which began in 2006 and is funded by the CSIRO, was the first to show that levels of beta-amyloid, the key neurotoxin found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's, were reduced with exercise.The findings will be presented at an international conference in Hawaii next month.Despite the promising findings from its research, the foundation is struggling for funds. For example, it needs only $4 million over three years for the 1100 people in the AIBL study, whereas US colleagues have been given $60 million to study 800 patients."Something needs to be done to shake up our decision makers to recognise that a small investment will have such a huge return for all of us," Professor Martins said.In other studies at ECU's Centre for Excellence in Alzheimer's Disease Research and Care, headed by Professor Martins, it has been shown that resistance exercise as well as aerobic exercise is important."We have tailored a special package of exercise taking both into account because they have a synergistic effect," Professor Martins said.The package is being used as part of a new trial, the Physical Exercise and Cognitive Stimulation Study (PEACS), which aims to determine if, and to what extent, brain fitness programs and exercise protect against Alzheimer's (see box below, right)."But we are not just relying on cognitive measures," Professor Martins said."We are looking at biological measures in the blood and at brain imaging to see if the brain is really metabolising glucose better than previously because if the brain reduces its use of glucose, it is an indication it is not functioning as well."In another first for WA, the researchers will also use the brain scans to measure beta-amyloid levels in the brain, a new and important diagnostic tool for Alzheimer's."Up to now, you could only say someone definitely had Alzheimer's at death when you looked at the brain for amyloid deposits at autopsy," Professor Martins said. "This allows us to see amyloid in the brain during life before you get Alzheimer's."Because it takes 15-20 years from the set-down of symptoms to the onset of Alzheimer's, it is hoped an early warning of amyloid deposits will enable people to take preventive steps, such as lifestyle change, before irreversible damage is done.However, as brain imaging is expensive and cannot be used as a screening tool for the general population, the researchers are also refining a blood test with a panel of protein markers that herald the development of Alzheimer's.In yet another potential leap forward, Professor Martins' group has designed a small protein that selectively binds with beta-amyloid and destroys it, to prevent it from killing brain cells.The group is on the path to making a drug from the protein, dubbed ana-1 (amyloid neutralising activity) and has enlisted the help of a biotechnology company, Alzhyme, to develop it."We are hoping to use the compound as a treatment for Alzheimer's," Professor Martins said. "We are hoping to use it as an implant in the body with a slow release and hope it clears the amyloid."As a healthy diet is also considered important protection against Alzheimer's, the research group is working on the development of a "cocktail" of antioxidants. It includes curcumin from curry, catechins from green tea, resveratrol from red wine, omega 3 from fish and lipoic acid, found in many foods including spinach and broccoli.Alzheimer's Australia WA chief executive Frank Schaper said there was a difference between normal age-related memory loss and Alzheimer's, in which there was a pattern of memory failure that repeated itself."It's not so much that you have lost your car keys and don't know where you have put them, it is when you find them and don't know what they are for," Mr Schaper said, alluding to Alzheimer's.There was a great fear of dementia, leading some people to become expert at masking their memory deficiencies, such as pretending they had forgotten someone's name only temporarily, he said.This often meant sufferers sought help only when it was too late.There were many things people could do to try to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's."Research now tells us that if you learn a language, that really reactivates and stimulates your brain," Mr Schaper said."And clearly, if you read and do crosswords and all that sort of thing, it is a stimulation for the brain. And if you remain socially connected, watch your diet, don't drink in excess and exercise regularly, all those things contribute."Funding for research into the disease was scarce. "The Government is not being honest when on the one hand it is saying we need to do something about dementia but then not supporting research to the extent that it is needed," Mr Schaper said.
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