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Alzheimer's research must be accelerated

By Dr. Ronald Petersen, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dr. Ronald Petersen says Alzheimer's is becoming a critical health issue
  • As baby boomers age, he says, study of Alzheimer's becomes more crucial
  • Research must be done to stop or slow the rate of cognitive decline, he says
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Editor's note: Dr. Ronald Petersen is director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. To learn more about Alzheimer's and how it affects people, Petersen and the Mayo Clinic are studying the general population to see how they age normally, hoping to find clues to what causes Alzheimer's in individuals.

Larry King returns to CNN with an emotional look at how people cope with Alzheimer's disease. Don't miss "Unthinkable: The Alzheimer's Epidemic," Sunday night, May 1 at 8 ET on CNN.

(CNN) -- Alzheimer's disease is rapidly becoming one of the most critical health issues facing America. With the aging of the baby boomers into the period of risk for Alzheimer's disease, it is essential that research be accelerated to possibly delay the onset or slow the progression of the disease.

At institutions worldwide, there is a push toward identifying individuals at the earliest clinical stage of Alzheimer's disease. A great deal of the work has focused on mild cognitive impairment as an intermediate stage between normal aging and Alzheimer's disease. Understanding this stage is important, because the earlier we can intervene with therapies, the more likely we are to prevent further damage to the brain. As researchers work to design therapies to intervene at the earliest possible stage, we're hopeful that we'll eventually be able to stop or slow the rate of cognitive decline.

It is critical that research be accelerated to possibly delay the onset of or slow the progression of the disease. If we don't arrive at some meaningful solution by the time baby boomers get to a significant period of risk, the projections are that the number of people with Alzheimer's disease will swamp the medical system. We have to get there. Currently, 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease. By 2050, as many as 16 million Americans will have the disease. These numbers represent a great burden on society.

The Mayo Clinic is actively involved in pursuing topics concerning the prediction and, ultimately, prevention of Alzheimer's disease. Through the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging, which is a longitudinal project involving individuals without dementia age 70 to 89 in the community, we are developing a set of prediction factors including family history, genetics, cognitive profile, imaging measures and biomarkers to help us determine who will be at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease in the future. Thus far, our research has demonstrated that certain genetic features, proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid, MRI scan measures, glucose and amyloid imaging techniques have been able to classify individuals with respect to their risk for developing Alzheimer's disease.

It is only through the application of these techniques to an average community population, such as those being followed in Rochester, Minnesota, that we will be able to determine the utility of these sophisticated techniques. The Mayo Clinic is dedicated to committing resources for the study of Alzheimer's disease to help minimize the burden that this disease will place on society.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dr. Ronald Petersen.