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As the Baby Boom generation nears retirement age, Alzheimer's disease may soon be an even greater health problem for Americans, according to Duke University Medical Center neurologists. Some dire forecasts even predict that Alzheimer's could become the single greatest health problem in the U.S. in another 15 to 20 years.

An upcoming Duke conference will look at advances in research, as well as support resources for patients and families. Donald Schmechel, M.D., director of the Bryan Alzheimer's Disease Research Center (ADRC) at Duke, said one of the keys to heading off this potential crisis is testing new medications that may provide treatment or even a cure for the disease. To ensure that research momentum continues, participation of patients, family members and others in clinical trials is vital.

There are two general categories of Alzheimer's research studies, Schmechel explained. Some trials study the effectiveness of new medications on patients and family members. A second type of trial involves genetic and tissue testing, which is part of a long-term effort to identify those at risk for Alzheimer's and design health care approaches to help delay or prevent the onset of the condition.

"There are two keys to Alzheimer's disease," said Schmechel, a neurologist. "The first is to understand why it begins and to either prevent it from ever happening or make it happen 10 to 20 years later. The other major advance would be, once you're diagnosed with the illness, how can we totally stabilize it and keep it from progressing."

According to Schmechel, America is still vastly under-funding Alzheimer's research.

"There is probably a $100 billion cost of Alzheimer's disease in this country, and we are currently spending about $700 million on research" he said. "That's about 0.7 percent, which is not much, given the amount of medical problems and heartache that occur as the disease starts and gets worse. Society right now is not girded up to deal with the problem, and we will pay the price."

Duke will hold its 19th annual Alzheimer's conference in Durham on Thursday, February 10. "Alzheimer's 2005: Imagine the Future" is the theme of this year's conference, which is open to anyone with an interest in Alzheimer's and non-Alzheimer's dementias. Those attending typically include patients, families, health care professionals and clinician-scientists.

Among the highlights of the conference are a "Live from the Lab" tour of the Bryan Center's affiliated neuroscience laboratories, and a new narrated tour, "Behind the Exam Room Door," which will be open to a limited number of participants. In the latter, an ADRC team will provide a preview of what to expect from a research clinic experience.

In addition to focusing on new advances in research and innovative clinical strategies, Schmechel said the event provides an opportunity for family members to learn about Alzheimer's support services. He believes the conference can be a very valuable resource for those in a caretaking role.

"The disease usually takes out two people: the patient and a caregiver," he said. "Facing the illness face-to-face, participating in research, being part of a support network and trying to get the best possible treatment for your loved one gives you some degree of control over this. And I think it ultimately gives you a more successful outcome."

For more information about the conference, visit the Bryan ADRC website or call (919) 660-7510. Registration closes January 31, 2005.