Alzheimer's Survey on NPR

Jerry Yesavage, who heads the Stanford/VA Alzheimer's Center, was on NPR yesterday with Michele Norris in a discussion about Alzheimer's treatments.

Several drugs are currently FDA-approved to treat Alzheimer's disease. At best, these drugs lead to only modest improvements in the cognitive functions of patients; none can stop the destruction of brain cells that underlies the illness.

Michele Norris surveys the current treatment landscape with Jerry Yesavage of Stanford University's Alzheimer's Disease Center.

Facts about Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease gradually destroys brain cells, extinguishing a person's memory and ability to learn, reason, communicate and care for themselves. The disease advances at different rates, lasting from three to 20 years.

The first symptoms people notice are often forgetfulness and confusion, progressing to profound memory loss, language problems and difficulty performing everyday tasks.

Scientists believe that by the time symptoms emerge, brain damage has already begun. As Alzheimer's progresses, sufferers may exhibit changes in their personality, such as anxiety, suspiciousness or agitation, delusions or hallucinations.

Eventually, the loss of brain function will kill an Alzheimer's patient, even if that person isn't otherwise seriously ill.

Risk Factors

There's no single cause of Alzheimer's disease. The most common form of the illness is late-onset Alzheimer's, which mainly affects people over age 65. The risk of developing the late-onset disease increases with age and family history of the disease. Scientists have also discovered one gene that boosts the risk.

Rare types of Alzheimer's linked to specific genes have been found in a few hundred families around the world. Individuals who inherit the genes are almost certain to develop the disease, sometimes as early as their 30s.

Alzheimer's has no known cure, but preliminary evidence suggests that controlling blood pressure, weight and cholesterol levels, keeping mentally and physically fit and staying socially active may help reduce the risk of developing the disease.


Scientists regard two different brain abnormalities as hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease -- "plaques" and "tangles." Plaques are protein deposits on the outside of brain cells that result from a protein called beta-amyloid. Tangles are deadly, twisted strands of another protein (called tau) that form inside brain cells.

Alzheimer's researchers disagree on whether plaques or tangles are the primary cause of the disease. However, research over the past couple of years has suggested that plaques outside of brain cells may trigger an enzyme inside the cells that in turn causes tau proteins to form tangles.

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