It's called the "Silver Tsunami" - the swelling number of baby boomers surpassing age 65. As medical advancements extend their lives, they're expected to live well into their 80s and 90s - outlasting any generation in American history.
But among Americans over 80 - who represent the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population - half are debilitated with a neurodegenerative disorder. Of this group, 5.4 million now have Alzheimer's Disease. By year 2050, that number is expected to balloon to 16 million, according to recent data released by the Alzheimer's Association.
As prevalence numbers steadily climb, the key to combatting the Alzheimer's epidemic is to focus on diagnosing the disease long before it ravages the brain. And the best place to start is the heart, says Jack C. de la Torre, adjunct professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.
According to de la Torre's research, the opportune window for diagnosis is middle age, when vascular risk factors, such as Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, are strongly linked with Alzheimer's.
"Vascular risk factors to Alzheimer's Disease offer the possibility of markedly reducing dementia by early identification and treatment," says de la Torre. "Improved understanding coupled with preventive strategies could be a monumental step forward in reducing worldwide prevalence of Alzheimer's Disease, which is doubling every 20 years."
In a special November issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, edited by de la Torre, leading experts provide a comprehensive overview of the pathological, biochemical and physiological processes that contribute to Alzheimer's Disease risk and ways that may delay or reverse these age-related abnormalities.
Among the promising breakthrough studies, the special issue features new research by Francisco Gonzalez-Lima, professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. The study is the first to demonstrate the memory-enhancing effects of low-level light therapy.
In search of a non-invasive treatment for memory loss, Gonzalez-Lima and a team of researchers tested light-emitting diodes developed by NASA on rats. The results show that certain wavelengths of red to near-infrared light are absorbed by the mitochondria in the brain (mini power plants generating energy for the cells) and facilitate cell respiration and energy production. By re-energizing brain cells in neural networks, the researchers found low-level light therapy has the potential to effectively treat dementia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and attention-deficit disorders.
Gonzalez-Lima suggests low-level light therapy could be applied transcranially as a new intervention for improving memory and reversing the cognitive effects of dementia.
With new treatments to prevent - and possibly reverse - Alzheimer's on the horizon, now is the time to accelerate global research before the devastating disease claims more victims and cripples the health care system, de la Torre says.
In 2012, Alzheimer's Disease - the most devastating and widespread manifestation of brain deterioration in old age - is projected to cost the United States an estimated $200 billion, according to data from the Alzheimer's Association. And by 2050, that number will balloon to $1.1 trillion.
"The time has come to start a plan that will vigorously reduce Alzheimer's Disease world-wide or we will all surely pay the colossal medical and economic price for the failure to act," says de la Torre.
He says although this field of research is in its infancy, researchers are making significant progress in curtailing the spread of Alzheimer's. Recent findings have important implications for primary care physicians, who are the first in the line of defense. By referring patients to specialists, they can manage or treat the symptoms of cognitive dysfunction long before they start experiencing memory loss.
"Reducing Alzheimer's Disease prevalence by focusing right now on vascular risk factors, even with our limited technology, is not a simple or easy task," de la Torre says. "But the task must not be delayed because time is running out for millions of people whose destiny with dementia may start sooner rather than later."
Journal of Alzheimer's Disease