Stop, and take a moment to ASK: Do you know anyone with Alzheimer’s disease? With the Alzheimer’s Association reporting that more than 5 million people in the United States are living with the disease, there is a good chance that everyone knows someone who has the disease or is affected by it.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Dementia describes symptoms of memory loss and the loss of other cognitive abilities that are serious enough to affect everyday life. Though researchers do not know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease, it is characterized by abnormal deposits of proteins in the brain called amyloid plaque and tau tangles. It is a disease that gets worse over time, leading to breakdowns in cognitive and physical functions and, eventually, death. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but treatment for its symptoms is available. Because the greatest known risk factor is age, early diagnosis allows early treatment and preparation for the changes the disease brings.
Recent developments in technology have completely changed the way Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed. A few decades ago, Alzheimer’s disease could not be diagnosed until the brain was examined after death. It was nearly impossible to know the early markers and risk factors. But with the advances in neuroimaging, early diagnosis is now possible. Now that they have the tools, researchers are trying to understand much more about Alzheimer’s disease—including why African Americans are twice as likely as non-Latinx whites to develop the disease.
Ann D. Cohen, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is one of the researchers involved in a study trying to understand more about Alzheimer’s disease and why it disproportionately affects African Americans.
“Because African Americans have higher rates of Alzheimer’s and are often diagnosed much later in the progression of the disease, we want to know more about the disease specifically in this population,” Dr. Cohen says. “For many reasons, African Americans are less likely to be involved in research. They’re at greater risk for developing the disease, and we need to know why so we can create better interventions and treatments. We know from research that the late stages of Alzheimer’s looks the same in all patients. But we want to know if there’s a difference in the early stages of the disease between whites and African Americans and if the disease progresses differently.”
Dr. Cohen and colleagues use neuroimaging to look at the brains of people with and without memory loss symptoms. They use positron emission topography (PET) scans to check for proteins in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s. They also use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for structural changes in the brain. Neuroimaging studies have shown that many people have the pathology of Alzheimer’s in their brains—but some people develop the disease and others do not. Researchers like Dr. Cohen want to understand why Alzheimer’s develops in some people and not in others because they think it will provide the key to preventing anyone from getting the disease. To do this, Dr. Cohen and researchers like her need people to help them further the study of Alzheimer’s.
In their study (details about the study can be found elsewhere on this page), Dr. Cohen and her colleagues are looking for people all along the spectrum of Alzheimer’s disease—people who show no symptoms, people with mild symptoms and people who are living with the disease.
“We’re in a special time in the field of Alzheimer’s disease research,” says Dr. Cohen. “We’ve developed enough technology where we’re about to understand a lot more about how this disease progresses. But what we need are people who are willing to selflessly give up their time to participate in these studies. Those are the people who are really going to help us understand the disease and how to prevent it.”
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