With no effective treatment yet known, a small community of researchers is searching for ways to prevent Alzheimer's disease — and to do that, they're working on tests that could detect the brain-ravaging condition years, even decades, before its symptoms show up.
And time is running out: More than 5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's, and the number is expected to triple by 2050.
At the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, the hope is that by spotting signs of the disease years before it arrives, patients might be able to change their fate by changing their behavior. It's one of just a few facilities in the country working with patients in a clinical setting to look for early-onset Alzheimer's, and its principle is simple: "Alzheimer's disease doesn't just affect the patient; it affects the entire family."
That's why its director, Dr. Richard Isaacson, not only runs tests of a potential patient's blood and cognitive abilities, but also scrutinizes the client's genetic background, which he said can help him "refine or fine-tune the suggestions I make to patients."
Max Lugavere, a musician, filmmaker and onetime TV host, is one of those clients. He's just 32 and seemingly healthy now, but his blood tests tell another story: He has a genetic variation and high levels of an amino acid shown to increase risk for dementia. So now he's hard at work changing his diet and lifestyle.
"My mother, who is 62, three years ago started having symptoms of memory loss and cognitive difficulty," Lugavere said. "So I became obsessed with this idea of taking steps in my own life that could potentially ensure that I'll never have anything like dementia."
His musical life could help. Isaacson said playing music "can absolutely delay cognitive decline." Isaacson plays in a band himself, and for him, the quest is personal as well as professional — several members of his own family have Alzheimer's.
"I'm not afraid of Alzheimer's. I'm going to do everything possible that I can today," he said. "But there are absolutely things we have to [do to] empower young people and people of all ages to make brain healthier choices."