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Conference Features Broad Thinking About Alzheimer's Disease

Recent studies into Alzheimer’s disease have focused on early detection and prevention, as evidence has suggested that signs of the disease may exist in the brain up to 20 years before symptoms develop.


According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease is the sixth-leading cause of death, and there is a new diagnosis nearly every minute. The direct cost of caring for patients with Alzheimer’s and related dementias is expected to reach $200 billion in 2012, and that burden will increase as our society continues to age.


That has led to broader thinking about Alzheimer's, which was evident at the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute's Alzheimer's Disease Annual Update Conference, which brought physicians, researchers, nurses, social workers and other care providers together at the Madison Concourse Hotel on November 9.


The conference was jointly sponsored by the Wisconsin Medical Society and the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, in conjunction with the medical school's Department of Medicine, Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital. Additional sponsorship was provided by the Wisconsin Geriatric Education Center.


The annual update featured talks about a wide range of issues, including the psychological aspects of aging, the use of imaging in early Alzheimer’s detection and managing family conflict at the end of life. Two talks in particular, by Dr. Carol Ryff and Dr. Sterling Johnson, both of UW-Madison, exemplified the conference’s broad scope.


Well-Being Has Implications for Alzheimer’s


Ryff, professor of psychology and director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talked about aging and well-being, using examples from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study.


The study’s components include sociodemographic, genetic, psychological and social factors; life challenges; health behaviors; neurobiological mechanisms; mental and physical health and wellness. It measures factors of well-being such as personal growth, autonomy, positive relations, environmental mastery, self-acceptance and purpose in life.


Among the study’s findings, there is a general downward trend in feelings of personal growth and purpose in life as people age. But Ryff noted that older people who do maintain high well-being have improved health outcomes. This has implications for Alzheimer’s disease, as Ryff pointed to research that suggests purpose in life is protective against Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment.


She also discussed how high well-being can moderate levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a biomarker associated with Alzheimer’s. Higher levels of interleukin-6 can be predicted by lower education levels, but the effect is buffered by high well-being.


“We’re basically providing evidence in this study that if you have high well-being in the face of these chronic conditions, it protects against elevated levels of inflammation that would fuel further disease processes,” Ryff said.


Seeing Alzheimer’s Before Symptoms Develop


Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, and by the time a patient exhibits symptoms, it’s too late for most current treatments to be of benefit. Therefore, increasing importance has been placed on early detection and intervention. Brain imaging is emerging as an important tool in establishing presymptomatic Alzheimer’s.


Johnson, professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, is a leader in this field. He used his talk to explain the use of brain scanning to determine the presence of amyloid - a protein that destroys brain cells - among participants in the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute’s Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention. Early findings have indicated that more than half of those enrolled in the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention are amyloid positive.


Johnson noted that delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s by 10 years would decrease the number of Alzheimer’s cases over 50 years from the projected 14.3 million to 3.5 million.


“It is quite an urgent thing to identify this disease as early as we can to prevent the number of cases,” Johnson said. “Seventy-eight million baby boomers turned 65 starting last year, and if we do not find a way to slow this disease, many of them will go on to get (Alzheimer’s disease).”


Out-of-the-Box Thinking About Alzheimer’s


The conference featured presentations from a variety of disciplines that included important implications for Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Dr. Betty Kramer, professor in the School of Social Work at UW-Madison, discussed best practices for managing family conflict at the end of life.

  • Dr. William Ehlenbach, assistant professor of medicine at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and a pulmonary and critical care specialist, talked about the evidence and implications of cognitive impairment after acute illness.

  • Dr. Howard Rosen, associate professor of neurology at the University of California-San Francisco, discussed frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative disease whose symptoms include lack of inhibition, antisocial behavior, compulsive behaviors and loss of concern for others. It is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease or a psychiatric disorder.

  • Dr. Thomas Finucane, professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, discussed drug treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

About the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute


The Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute (WAI) was established as an academic center at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in 1998 and is directed by Dr. Mark Sager, professor of medicine. The WAI is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of people and families affected by Alzheimer’s disease. To meet this commitment the WAI is engaged in cutting edge pre-symptomatic research through our Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP) project, health professional education and training, and outreach to Wisconsin providers and communities.


The 2012 Alzheimer’s Disease Update summarized above is an annual benchmark program of the WAI Education Program. To find more educational offerings on best practice for dementia diagnosis, treatment, and family support please visit our website above, or to learn more about how you can be involved with any of our programs please contact Suzanne Bottum-Jones, director of WAI Education and Outreach Programs at (608) 829-3302 or


Private support is always deeply appreciated and enables the WAI to advance its imperative research in preventing this disease, while positively improving the lives of those living with Alzheimer’s today. To make a gift to the WAI, please contact Kristine Thompson at (608) 206-5984 or  Our sincere gratitude to all those joining with us to make a meaningful difference for others.

Date Published: 11/21/2012

News tag(s):  researchalzheimer's disease

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Conference Features Broad Thinking About Alzheimer's Disease

Last updated: 04/20/2015
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