Along with cancer and heart disease, Alzheimer’s is among the most devastating illnesses imaginable. It is estimated that 5.4 million Americans of all ages currently suffer from what Elaine Healy, MD, Medical Director and Vice President of Medical Affairs at United Hebrew of New Rochelle, calls “an incurable, irreversible disease that causes deterioration of the brain matter, destroying brain cells.” However, science journal Nature recently reported that a drug called aducanumab could eliminate toxic proteins that trigger Alzheimer’s, signifying a potential breakthrough in treatment. This has provoked conversation about whether Alzheimer’s on its way out, or if it’s wiser to refrain from celebrating just yet.
“This and similar studies that demonstrate a drug’s ability to reverse the damages in the brain’s anatomy are promising,” Healey concedes. “But to be truly revolutionary, studies would have to also show a meaningful impact on the cognitive losses and behavioral symptoms of the disease. Memory disorders have a very long silent phase. Generally, the damage goes on for many years before the symptoms become apparent, so it’s a matter of whether we’re closing the barn door after the horse is out.”
As further studies are conducted on aducanumab, Healy notes that treatment plans for patients living with Alzheimer’s have already improved. “Over the 30 years that I have been a geriatrician, we have greatly changed our approach,” Healy says. “When I first started working in nursing homes, it was not uncommon to see patients restrained physically or with medications; now physical restraints are virtually non-existent and medications are used only as a last resort and extremely judiciously. Today, we tailor our approach to meet the individual needs and strengths of each patient, with activities to stimulate memory such as music therapy.”
As for already available medication that aims to slow the breakdown of communication among brain cells (e.g. cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine), Healy reminds that “the rate of the disease’s progress are slight. The drugs don’t cure the disease by any means, and their effectiveness in later stages is doubtful.”
The more fruitful treatment, she asserts, lies in the aforementioned individualized care, as well as “knowing what triggers that patient’s anxiety.” And rather believing we have overcome the disease, Healy suggests that continued relevant breakthroughs are coming with growing awareness, understanding, and acceptance of the disease’s manifestations, and being open to recognizing it in ourselves and our loved ones.