New Alzheimer's Research Signals Hope

According to data from a new Harris Poll commissioned by the American Academy of Physician Associates and shared exclusively with Time magazine, more than 70% of U.S. adults feel the health care system is failing in some way to meet their needs. Not exactly earthshaking news here, but troubling nonetheless.

Though this country spends more money per capita on health care than any other wealthy country in the world, the U.S. is very much lagging behind others when it comes to life expectancy and other health outcomes. Reports Time magazine, more than half of the roughly 2,500 U.S. adults who took the survey gave the U.S. health care system a “C” or below grade in performance.

Of those who took the survey, only 27% said the U.S. medical system meets all their needs. Major areas of complaint included “how long it takes to get an appointment (31% of respondents), high costs (26%), limitations of insurance coverage (23%), and subpar focus on preventive care and wellness (19%),” reports Time. Like what is being reported elsewhere, many people surveyed say that they now don’t see a single health care provider on a regular basis and have skipped or delayed needed care in the past two years.

“The survey did, however, suggest some bright spots and paths forward,” notes Time. “More than 75% of survey participants said that providers work with them to improve their health, more than 70% said they want stronger relationships with their providers, and more than 65% said they believe their health would improve if they regularly worked with a trusted provider.” Given mounting frustrations with health care in this country, people have not given up hope that things will improve.

It is a good reminder that, when we look at the negatives, and there are plenty when it comes to the state of health care in this country, it is also important to acknowledge positive advances where they are being made. Current news in the search for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is a good example. As recently pointed out by The New York Times, “more than six million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s, a disease that has been notoriously difficult to treat,” and for which there currently is no cure. As has been widely reported recently, “researchers identified a first-of-its-kind patient with a genetic predisposition for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease who remained cognitively intact more than two decades beyond the expected age of memory impairment,” says Harvard Health.

Reports the Times’ Gina Kolata, “the man should have gotten Alzheimer’s disease in his early 40s — he had a gene mutation that guaranteed it, or so it seemed. Scans of his brain even revealed severe atrophying and the hallmarks of the disease: rough, hard, amyloid plaques and spaghetti-like tangles of tau proteins. But the fatal brain disease did not appear until the man was 67.” This led to an intense research effort to discover why.

Taking on the task was an international team led by Harvard Medical School investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital. The results of this study were recently published in Nature Medicine. Their collective efforts revealed a new genetic variant that protects against Alzheimer’s disease.

“The man was protected because another mutation in a different gene blocked the disease from entering his entorhinal cortex,” explains the New York Times report. “That tiny area of the brain is a hub for neurons involved in memory, recognition of objects, navigation and time perception. And it is there that scientists believe that Alzheimer’s disease begins.”

“A great door has been opened for the prevention and treatment of incurable diseases,” proclaims Francisco Lopera, director of the Neuroscience Group of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia, and a co-author of the study. Lopera is the neurologist who identified this individual and has been following him and his family for the last 30 years. “The newly identified variant occurs in a different gene than the genetic variant from another individual in the same family, whose case was reported in 2019,” reports Harvard Health. It is believed that the new variant points to a “common disease pathway” that may change the way researchers think about this disease and develop treatments for it.

“This really holds the secret to the next generation of therapeutics,” says Dr. Joseph F. Arboleda-Velasquez, a member of the research team and a cell biologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, to The New York Times.

“Finding, understanding, replicating and mimicking the actions of protective mutations may be key to creating more precision medicines and fending off the onset of Alzheimer’s and other diseases,” reports Forbes contributor Ellen Matloff. “This approach has already been successful in other areas of medicine. For example, a woman with very low cholesterol was found to carry genetic mutations from both parents that caused her astonishing LDL cholesterol level of 14. Researchers studied this rare mutation and how it worked and used that information to create a medication to treat patients with very high cholesterol.”

The same may someday be true for Alzheimer’s.