Neurodegenerative Disease Rising Globally
John Kauwe, assistant professor of biology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, delivered a sobering presentation about the myths of Alzheimer’s disease at Weber Human Services on Friday afternoon. The talk, hosted by the Utah chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, stressed the dire need for funding of Alzheimer’s disease research as more individuals near the ages of Alzheimer’s susceptibility.
“There have been articles that have come out recently saying quite clearly that Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease that our country is dealing with right now,” Kauwe said. “It is the largest financial burden on our country as far as diseases go. On top of that, Alzheimer’s disease is the only one of the top ten causes of death in the United States with no prevention and no cure.
“Our country will buckle under the weight of caring for the people who are suffering from this disease. Government officials are starting to see that it’s in their financial interest to put the money in now and alleviate the problem. It’s something we need to deal with sooner rather than later.”
Kauwe said Alzheimer’s disease is a combination of genetics, lifestyle and environment, and as such, there is no way to prevent or slow down the disease by diet and exercise alone.
“The idea that there are specific dietary practices or supplements that will stop or slow down or prevent Alzheimer’s disease is a really appealing one,” Kauwe said. “Unfortunately, while those are all good things to do and you should eat your vegetables and you should take healthy supplements and you should manage your diet properly, there’s no compelling evidence that that will stop or prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease. If the possibility of reducing the risk for Alzheimer’s motivates you to eat healthier and stay active, great; it’s just not clear that that’s going to solve this problem completely.”
Kauwe likened the process of genetic expression to baking a cake. Your DNA is like your cookbook. Your RNA is like the paper on which you write the recipe from your cookbook on so you don’t have to lug the book into the kitchen. And you have the proteins the RNA acts upon, which is essentially the “baking” process – the process of implementing your genetic code in your body. During the baking process your cake can be affected by things like altitude or forgetting the salt. The expression of your genetic code can also be affected during the “baking process” by things like your environment, your diet and your life experiences.
“Everything, every chemical you’re ever exposed to, even the way you act with your family, your religion, your government — they all interact with your genes to create you,” Kauwe said, noting that children who experience the early death of their mothers, before the age of 10 or 12, actually have higher risk of Alzheimer’s.
In addition to the myth that diet alone can prevent Alzheimer’s, Kauwe said that contrary to popular belief, Alzheimer’s is fatal, there are no treatments for the disease, and the discovery of new genes associated with Alzheimer’s does not signal an imminent cure.
“New genes provide info that can be used to better inform our quest to cure the disease. In six short years, we went from one gene for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, to 20 genes for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease,” Kauwe said. “The progress we’ve made in the past five or six years is amazing. Especially when you consider that it took us 20 years to find the second gene. One of the challenges is we may have the gene, but we don’t know why it affects the risk of Alzheimer’s.”
According to Kauwe, such knowledge can only be attained with more funding. He believes that if Alzheimer’s research drew the kind of funding that breast cancer and HIV do, “we would have prevention avenues and treatment avenues that are at least equivalent to those two diseases.”
When asked if he felt his presentation was discouraging for his audience, Kauwe said he thought it was, but that’s no reason to ignore reality.
“It is discouraging. It’s discouraging for me, too,” Kauwe said. “But we need to know that work has to be done. We can’t sit there and pretend that it’s going to be cured when it’s not. We have to face that reality.The idea is that for people to understand that there is no simple solution and that there’s a purpose to the research that myself and my colleagues are conducting. We know that the reality is there’s no simple solution; we’re motivated to find one.”
Kauwe said that though the obstacle Alzheimer’s presents may be discouraging, there are ways for people to fight back. He encouraged people to become advocates for dealing with the disease, to take steps to maximize the quality of their lives, to donate their time and money, and to participate in research efforts such as clinical trials.
“Elderly, non-demented individuals are the ideal people for those control groups; the older the better,” Kauwe said. “If you’re very old and very cognitively sharp and healthy, then you’re an ideal candidate for genetics studies that need to compare your DNA to those of the individuals who are affected by Alzheimer’s disease. It doesn’t take much. The clinical trials and genetics studies that they can participate in are carefully designed, they’re carefully regulated, their privacy is protected and their safety is protected and they shouldn’t have any concerns about participating.”
Kate Nederostek, director of programs for the Utah Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, said her organization runs a support group for those who have been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and are still in the early stages of the disease.
“Our support group consists of early-stage individuals. They come together, support one another, learn from one another. Many of them have become advocates for us,” Nederostek said. “They’ll visit local representatives and as travel to D.C. with us to talk with Congress to let them know of their affiliation with the association, their affliction, what their future holds, and to ask and demand for additional support for Alzheimer’s disease. The quicker we find a cure or an effective treatment for this disease process, the more lives are going to be affected and we’re going to reduce the cost that this disease has on our nation.”