New drug shows promise for Alzheimer’s

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Dr. Mark Simaga

There still is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there is hope on the horizon for the 5.4 million people suffering from the debilitating disease and the millions more expected to be diagnosed with it in the coming years.

“There are some very hopeful things going on,” according to Dr. Mark Simaga, neurologist and president of the medical staff at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart.

The most exciting breakthrough, Simaga said, is Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals’ florbetaben, which helps detect beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, the main cause of the disease that currently affects one in eight adults over age 65 and 45 percent of people over age 85, with the percentage growing. The drug binds with the plaques and can be detected using a nuclear imaging method, he said.

“Florbetaben is a marker showing how much of the plaque has accumulated on the brain. We hope to stop that accumulation,” Simaga said.

Simaga said doctors could make headway in treating the disease if it is detected when a person is younger, such as 60 compared to 75.

“But we need to know the person has Alzheimer’s. Now we can only detect it through a post-mortem autopsy,” he said.

The drug is still in the clinical trial stage, and probably won’t be ready for market for at least a couple years, Simaga said.

Until then, there are four drugs on the market, such as Aricept, that slow down the progression of the disease but don’t cure it, Simaga said. All four have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Simaga said it is difficult to know if there is any medicine that can prevent a person from getting Alzheimer’s. However, he said there are several factors that can contribute to making the disease worse: high blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, smoking and depression.

“If you get these under control, you can improve your quality of life and slow dementia,” he said.

Simaga said Alzheimer’s is currently the sixth leading cause of death in America, but it’s moving up the ladder as the death rate for the top four causes are decreasing.

He said deaths from coronary disease went down 13 percent from 2000 to 2009, breast cancer deaths went down 3 percent and stroke deaths 20 percent, while death from Alzheimer’s increased 66 percent in the same period.

“The numbers for Alzheimer’s are getting bigger because we’ve gotten better at treating other diseases,” Simaga said.

He said it is important to continue medical research on the disease that robs people of their memory and ability to function as the elderly are quickly growing in numbers. Baby boomers are reaching retirement age and people age 90 to 100 are showing the greatest population growth, he said.

“We need to find some way of treating this disease and treating it early,” Simaga said.