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Lois Collins: What happened to the promising progress on fighting Alzheimer's?

WASHINGTON — The federal government recently pushed more money toward Alzheimer's research — $2 billion in 2018. It's an increase that comes nowhere near the cost of the illness, which burns through individual and government resources to the tune of an estimated $200 billion a year. But it's a welcome infusion that comes as many discouraged drug companies are pulling out of Alzheimer's research, at least for now.

Those are among the statistics that researchers and government experts have shared with reporters in the nation's capitol this week during a four-day fellowship exploration of what's new and old in Alzheimer's disease, put together by the National Press Foundation.

The mixed bag of news is pretty depressing for those of us who watched a loved one wind down with the brain disease. My mom died with Alzheimer's in 2004 after an eight-year battle that wasn't really a battle at all. She was unarmed against the devastation. For more than a decade, I've been telling myself that scientists are going to make a breakthrough virtually any day now. They'll figure out how to treat Alzheimer's before it can claim anyone else I love. But a cure still seems far away.

The news here has been good and bad: According to Dr. Scott Turner, director of the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University, the past year has been rough for drug manufacturers as promising potential treatments have bombed their clinical trials. Every anti-Alzheimer's drug since 2003 has failed and most approved medications have limited impact.

But on the positive side, prevalence of the disease seems to be somewhat lower and researchers feel like they've identified a pretty solid list of risk factors, including some against which people are not entirely helpless. You can't do anything about your genetics or advancing age, but many factors believed to contribute to Alzheimer's might be amenable to lifestyle change. The most promising, according to research, is exercise. Given how rough Alzheimer's is over its lethal course, it's puzzling that it's so difficult to get people to embrace exercise. Get moving because that is believed to make a difference and offer some protection. Don't wait, either, because the consensus is brain changes that are part of Alzheimer's begin years, maybe even decades, before symptoms show up.

No one's quite sure what share of the disease the different factors impact or how findings on two major suspects inside the brain — a buildup of amyloid plaques and tau tangles — will play out, but heart- and brain-healthy behaviors like keeping blood pressure and diabetes under control, maintaining healthy weight and staying active are believed to hold real promise for reducing risk.

Preventing Alzheimer's is not just about saving yourself. The disease puts a huge burden on younger generations who must provide care and also bear the cost of programs for the elderly. There are fewer and fewer younger people to heft that load. Dr. Marie A. Bernard, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging in the National Institutes of Health, told foundation fellows that by 2040, projections are that folks over age 65 will for the very first time in the United States outnumber kids under age 5.

Right now, 140 clinical trials are trying to unravel the mysteries of a disease that has broken so many hearts. Each one offers individuals an opportunity to be part of efforts to decipher the disease and aid efforts that may one day end or at least modify Alzheimer's, just as research has turned deadly AIDs into an often-manageable chronic disease or changed the once-lethal story of childhood leukemia to one in which children most often survive.

I'm still not sure I am ready to know whether I carry copies of the APOE4 gene that increases the likelihood I'll have Alzheimer's. But I do want to know what I can do in the way of lifestyle changes to better my odds.

If I can contribute to understanding this disease that battered and bruised my family a decade ago, sign me up.