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caption: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor pledges alligence to the flag Saturday, Sept. 17, 2005. (Matt York/AP)
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor pledges alligence to the flag Saturday, Sept. 17, 2005. (Matt York/AP)

Sandra Day O'Connor's Dementia Announcement Puts Spotlight On Alzheimer's

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced Tuesday that she has been diagnosed with dementia and potentially Alzheimer’s disease.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Dr. Paul Newhouse (@DrPaulNewhouse), director of the Vanderbilt Center for Cognitive Medicine, about the disease, how it’s treated and what the latest research says about causes.

While some of the medications tested to remove or prevent the accumulation of abnormal proteins associated with the disease have not been as effective as Newhouse would hope, he says he still thinks researchers are “on the cusp of developing some very new and highly effective therapies.”

Interview Highlights

On the different treatments for Alzheimer’s symptoms, and the progress made toward a cure

“We have medications that can help the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and improve or stabilize memory and function. We also have medicines that can assist with some of the secondary symptoms that we occasionally see in this disease, such as anxiety and agitation. But we don’t have any medications that are on the market at this time to slow the progress of the illness.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in our ability to make a diagnosis of this disease, because we can now actually see the abnormal proteins in the brain with some of the advanced neuroimaging techniques that have been developed over the last 25 years. And so, at this point, we can actually make a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in many patients.”

On preventative measures for the disease

“[What’s] exciting is to use some of the same type of compounds that have been proposed for treatment, but to give them much earlier in the disease. And so, if we can prevent the accumulation of these abnormal proteins, then the hope is that we can either stave off the illness or even stop it in its tracks.

“The other approach that a lot of us are very interested in is, can we use lifestyle approaches to modify the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Can we use things like physical exercise, dietary approaches and other kinds of activities that we think will lower the risk of developing this disease.

“They’re still being worked on unfortunately, so we have a lot of data that correlates, you know, someone exercising with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s, but we haven’t proven it yet in a ‘go-forward’ way. We haven’t shown that if you started an exercise program that you yourself will have a reduced risk. But I think that there’s accumulating evidence that a lot of these lifestyle factors and biological interventions may really pay dividends.”

On the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia

“Dementia is a broader syndrome of which there are many causes, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, but it’s not the only one.”

On whether O’Connor’s possible diagnosis may be related to genetics

“Ms. O’Connor is 88 … and so we would characterize her as having what we call late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease seems to have less genetic load, if you will, or less genetic links than early onset disease.

“I would personally not feel at this point that that would necessarily make [family members] more likely to develop this disease than the general population.”

On how Alzheimer’s is diagnosed more frequently in women than men

“We do see evidence that women are more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and we think that’s a very interesting fact. It’s true that women live longer than men on average, but even when you adjust for that, women have a somewhat higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than men.” [Copyright 2018 NPR]