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Retire Better: A big step toward beating Alzheimer’s—but the battle is far from over

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The Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a drug that can slow the onset of Alzheimer’s is huge. 

The drug, Biogen’s “aducanumab,” is the first treatment shown to slow cognitive decline. Critics say this doesn’t cure Alzheimer’s, and they’re right. But they’re missing the broader point. Think of aducanumab as a roadblock of sorts. It slows Alzheimer’s down. That’s progress—big progress. 

“The historic approval of aducanumab ushers in an exciting era in Alzheimer’s and dementia treatment and research,” says the Alzheimer’s Association in a statement. “Approvals of the first drug in a new category benefit people living with the disease by invigorating the field, increasing investments in treatments and generating innovation.” 

That being said, the association acknowledges that there are caveats. As mentioned above, aducanumab is not a cure for Alzheimer’s, but it is “a very important advance for treatment. The therapy has not yet been tested on people with more advanced cases of dementia.”

Without getting too deep in the weeds, what aducanumab does is remove something called “amyloid” from the brain. As amyloid, which is a protein, builds up, it can contribute to cognitive decline. If you remove it, the potential to retain normal cognitive functions increases. 

Biogen
BIIB,
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says that in October 2019, it evaluated data from 318 patients and found that the given the highest doses of aducanumab slowed cognitive decline by 22%, or about four months over an 18-month period. A lower dose in that trial and high and low doses in another showed no statistically significant benefit over a placebo.

Read: Only ‘greedy’ drug companies will cure Alzheimer’s

Another way to think of this progress: We haven’t found a cure for cancer yet, but death rates for most types of cancers have declined steadily for many years now, according to the National Cancer Institute. The fight against Alzheimer’s could progress in similar fashion. There are more than 70 other potential drugs in various stages of development, The Wall Street Journal has noted.

A cure for Alzheimer’s can’t come fast enough. Already, more than six million Americans are living with it now, the association says, and adds that Alzheimer’s kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. 

Meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic, which thankfully appears to be easing, has been devastating for Alzheimer’s patients. Deaths have jumped some 16% during the pandemic; one obvious reason is because safety protocols have made it difficult for caregivers and/or family members to come near those afflicted by it. 

Read: The FDA approved the first major Alzheimer’s treatment in 18 years — what it means for your loved ones fighting the disease

The association says all of this comes with an enormous price tag. This year alone, Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost a staggering $355 billion. By 2050, it projects, this cost could more than triple to a staggering $1.1 trillion (in 2021 dollars). About three-quarters of both figures are attributable to Alzheimer’s alone. 

But the true cost is far higher, given that over 11 million Americans provide unpaid care for Alzheimer’s patients, according to association data. That’s 11 million people working for free, presumably to care for a loved one. The opportunity cost of all this labor is incalculable.

On top of this, racial discrimination is a problem. Association data says that 50% of Blacks, 42% of Native Americans, 34% of Asian-Americans and 33% of Hispanics report discrimination while seeking care for Alzheimer’s. 

What about prevention through a healthier lifestyle? There’s a common view that exercising the brain with, say, crossword puzzles and such helps keep the brain sharp. This is helpful, though the world-famous Mayo Clinic offers even better advice: Exercise. Here’s what it says: 

Studies show that people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Physical activity is one of the known modifiable risk factors for dementia. Plus, regular exercise helps combat other Alzheimer’s disease risk factors, such as depression and obesity.

This doesn’t take much, just 30 to 60 minutes of activity several times a week. So walk or run if you can. Bike, swim. Lift light weights. Yoga is wonderful. Just keep moving. The goal here is to get more oxygenated blood flowing to your brain. And guess what? That makes the crossword puzzle easier.

“Physical activity seems to help your brain not only by keeping the blood flowing but also by increasing chemicals that protect the brain,” the clinic adds. “Physical activity also tends to counter some of the natural reduction in brain connections that occurs with aging.”

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