Alzheimer’s disease affects one in eight people over 65 in the United States, and about one in two people over 85. Its toll on the U.S. economy comes to over $140 billion per year. By 2050, the number of Alzheimer’s cases in the U.S. will triple to 14 million, and will have cost the nation about $20 trillion if no preventions or treatments are found.
Fortunately, in the battle against Alzheimer’s, the United States is able to call on the help of an invaluable ally: its Veterans. The men and women who have served in America’s armed forces have not only proved themselves proud and eager to volunteer for Alzheimer’s research studies; as Veterans, they are in fact more vulnerable to the disease, and thus make ideal research partners. NCIRE facilitates key research projects involving Veterans and dementia at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.
Dr. Kristine Yaffe, SFVAMC Chief of Geriatric Psychiatry, is one of the nation’s leading experts on risk factors and preventive strategies for Alzheimer’s disease. In 2009, Dr. Yaffe showed that older Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder were almost twice as likely to develop dementia as Veterans without PTSD. In 2011, she demonstrated that traumatic brain injury more than doubled the risk of dementia among older Veterans.
“It is remarkable to me how strong and resilient our Veterans are. But we don’t realize how vulnerable some of them are as well,” says Dr. Yaffe. “Can we prevent dementia? Are there ways to slow down cognitive decline as we age? Those are the questions that excite me.”
Dr. Michael Weiner is the Director of the Center for Imaging of Neurodegenerative Diseases at SFVAMC, and a pioneer in the field of magnetic resonance imaging. Dr. Weiner is the Principal Investigator of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), a $140 million international multi-year clinical trial with the overall goal of prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s.
In 2011, Dr. Weiner began a new research initiative: Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease in Aging Veterans. “This project will harness the immense research power of ADNI to focus on the unique challenges of cognitive aging faced by former service members,” he says. “Combat Veterans with PTSD will be studied for markers of impending cognitive impairment and dementia in brain, spinal fluid, and blood, and compared with control subjects who have not experienced combat.”
Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease in Aging Veterans will not only identify Alzheimer’s risk factors in military personnel; by gathering data from these especially vulnerable research subjects, it will potentially accelerate our knowledge of how and why Alzheimer’s develops, thereby speeding the development of new preventions and treatments.
Veterans’ research contributions will not end there, according to Dr. Weiner. “When new medications are developed, it will be important to test their effectiveness in people who are particularly susceptible, as we look for ways to prevent the disease from progressing,” he says. “Once again, this is where our Veterans will be able to step up and advance Alzheimer’s research on behalf of us all.”
Kristine Yaffe’s research page
Michael Weiner’s research page
MSNBC: Brain-injured veterans twice as likely to get dementia
USA Today: Traumatic brain injury doubles risk of later dementia