By JOSEPH BROWNSTEIN
ABC News Medical Unit
May 29, 2009
According to the National Institutes of Health, 2.4 to 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia in the elderly.
While we know Alzheimer’s disease gradually destroys a person’s ability to think, reason or recall memories, there is no way to diagnose it without performing an autopsy, clearly too late to help doctors trying to help the person live with the ailment.
Diagnosis consists of looking at signs of cognitive decline, among other measures. But making a definite diagnosis is, at present, not possible.
Treatment, too, has been elusive. While the disease has been linked to the accumulation and hardening of proteins known as beta amyloid on the surface of the brain, researchers were able to develop a trial vaccine that eliminated the beta amyloid plaques but did not prevent the development of Alzheimer’s. And researchers have found people who have the plaques but do not display any signs of dementia.
It has become clear that Alzheimer’s will take significantly different courses in different people, and, like cancer, likely has a multitude of causes.
Because Alzheimer’s disease’s origins and course remain a mystery, perhaps it should come as no surprise that different doctors have different approaches to the disease.
Dr. Peter Whitehouse, founder of the University Memory and Aging Center at University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University, and author of “The Myth of Alzheimer’s,” approaches Alzheimer’s as one of many natural courses of aging, rather than as a disease that requires immediate diagnosis.
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