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Duke researcher sees glimmer of hope in Alzheimer's research

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The number of Americans living with Alzheimer's is 5.4 million people, or the population of the 17 largest counties in North Carolina. The number of Americans living with Alzheimer's is 5.4 million people, or the population of the 17 largest counties in North Carolina.
DURHAM, N.C. -

The number of Americans living with Alzheimer's is 5.4 million people, or the population of the 17 largest counties in North Carolina.

That number is expected to increase to 16 million people by 2050, matching the populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas.

And one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer's or another dementia.

A special week-long series airing this week on NBC Nightly News focuses on the latest advances in slowing down and perhaps even eventually curing Alzheimer's.

Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, who is considered one of the nation's leading authorities on Alzheimer's, said he recognized early on that Alzheimer's "was going to be one of the biggest public health challenges of the 20th century."

"At the time I went into Alzheimer's research the door was wide open and I had the sense it was going to be one of the biggest public health challenges of the 20th century," said Doraiswamy, who is a psychiatry professor at Duke University Medical Center and an author of "The Alzheimer's Action Plan." "As the number of people who live into their 80s, 90s and 100s is rising year after year we are going to have more and more cases of Alzheimer's."

At Duke University Medical Center, 12 labs are actively involved in Alzheimer's research. Doraiswamy said until recently, one of the main challenges facing doctors was detecting the disease that, by nature progresses, very slowly.

"Alzheimer's creeps up on us so slowly, so gradually and in such a mild fashion that it is often hard to distinguish normal aging and benign forgetfulness from more serious forms of dementia. So doctors often times had to guess because you really couldn't look at the brain. The definitive way to tell if someone has Alzheimer's or not was only done at an autopsy," Doraiswamy said.

Last year, the FDA approved a new diagnostic test to help doctors make more accurate diagnoses.

"[The test] can visualize the Alzheimer's plaques in a living human being. Obviously this is not a 100-percent accurate test by itself but what it allows doctors to do is increase their diagnostic accuracy from 60 or 70-percent to perhaps about 90 percent. And Duke played a major role in its development along with a number of other centers," Doraiswamy said.

Doraiswamy is hopeful a cure for Alzheimer's is within reach.

"I don't think it's going to happen in the next five years. I'm hopeful that in the next five to 10 years we will have several promising leads and in the next 15 years or so we will have something that definitely makes a dent."

Charlotte Huffman

An award-winning journalist with an investigative edge, Charlotte has driven legislative change with reports on workplace safety concerns and contaminated groundwater. Contact our Investigative Team anytime HERE. More>>

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