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Commentary - advancing research for a cure for Alzheimer's disease

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By Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota)

Until a few years ago, Jerry Parks had a successful career with a construction company in Minnesota. But, while still in his early 50s, Jerry had to retire because he was experiencing short-term memory loss. Originally misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorder, Jerry eventually learned he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

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Jerry is not alone. Close to 5.5 million Americans, including nearly 100,000 Minnesotans, are currently living with this degenerative brain disease. These numbers will grow dramatically in the coming years with the aging of the baby boom generation, sometimes known as the "silver tsunami." By 2030, the number of Americans with Alzheimer's will likely double from what it is today.

The financial costs of providing care to those afflicted by this disease are huge. Total payments this year for health care, long-term care and hospice care connected with Alzheimer's will exceed $180 billion. And dollar figures account for only a portion of the real costs of caring for people with Alzheimer's, because most care is provided by family members.

These formidable statistics about Alzheimer's tell only part of the story. Behind the numbers are real people living with Alzheimer's or helping care for someone with the disease. They are people like Jerry Parks and his wife, Karen, who now helps care for him. Or Julie Allen, who began experiencing memory problems five years ago at age 52, but only last year was finally diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's is such a frustrating disease; in part because scientists still do not know exactly what causes it, or how to prevent it, or how to cure it. In recent years, though, there have been scientific breakthroughs that promise to answer these questions.

Last month I invited Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, to meet with Minnesotans concerned about Alzheimer's. He also visited the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Hodes described some of the leading-edge Alzheimer's research, much of it happening in Minnesota.

At the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Ronald Petersen and his team can now use advanced brain imaging to identify individuals at the very earliest stage of the disease in order to intervene with drugs or other therapies that could delay the onset or slow the progression of the disease.

It is no coincidence that the all-time winningest coach in U.S. college basketball history, Pat Summitt of the University of Tennessee, went to Mayo for her early diagnosis of dementia.

And Dr. Petersen's recent appointment as chair of the national Advisory Council on Alzheimer's Research, Care and Services means that his cutting edge research will only continue to help us better understand this disease.

At the University of Minnesota, Dr. Karen Hsiao Ashe's research with mice is considered by many to be the "gold standard" for Alzheimer's research. Her work has helped to better identify the cause of memory loss in Alzheimer's and has been used by her colleagues across the country to help develop new treatments, preventive therapies, and possible cures to this disease.

Other pioneers include Dr. Frank LaFerla from the University of California, Irvine. Studying mice and the use of healthy stem cells, Dr. LaFerla is charting new ground in the potential of neural stem cell therapy to treat and possibly cure Alzheimer's disease.

And finally, several months ago, for the first time in 27 years, the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer's Association issued new criteria for diagnosing Alzheimer's and new research guidelines to reflect the latest research on the disease.

Further innovative research on this disease is essential and it depends on the National Institute on Aging, which sponsors three-quarters of our nation's research on Alzheimer's. Focusing more on Alzheimer's research is the right thing to do. It's also the smart thing to do.

Between now and 2050, Alzheimer's will cost the U.S. an estimated $20 trillion. We could cut that by almost half with a treatment that delayed the onset of Alzheimer's by just five years, similar to what we see with anti-cholesterol drugs in preventing heart disease.

For example, a recent study conducted at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center showed that early testing may more than pay for itself, as people diagnosed with the disease may be less likely to be treated for other illnesses. The study found that patients diagnosed with dementia through screening reported 13 percent less in health costs in the first year of treatment.

That's why I'm a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Alzheimer's Breakthrough Act, which would strengthen federal support for Alzheimer's research and increase the focus on scientific opportunities with the best likelihood of producing clinical treatments or, even better, a cure for the disease.

Alzheimer's is one of the toughest medical, economic, and social challenges we face in the years ahead. It's essential for our future that we support the basic medical research that is our only hope for a true breakthrough to attack this mind-ravaging disease.

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