A Medical University of South Carolina researcher’s finding that Alzheimer’s disease damages the brains of men and women in different ways could be a key to more effective treatments for the terrible illness that robs people of their memories before it eventually kills.

The risks

Age is the most important known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Beyond age 65, the number of people with the disease doubles every five years. Family history and genetics also play a role. Scientists are finding more evidence that some of the risk factors for heart disease and stroke, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, may also increase the risk of the disease. Evidence for physical, mental and social activities as protective factors against Alzheimer’s is growing. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Dr. Maria Spampinato, associate professor of radiology, was lead researcher for a five-year study that analyzed data for more than 100 people who had mild cognitive impairment that became Alzheimer’s disease. Magnetic resonance images of patient brains were studied at the time of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis as well as 12 months before and a year afterward.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a term for a variety of diseases and conditions that develop when nerve cells in the brain die or no longer function normally.In Alzheimer’s, brain changes eventually impair basic bodily functions, such as walking and swallowing. Alzheimer’s is ultimately fatal. More than half of the 5.4 million Americans with Alzheimer’s may not know they have it. Source: Alzheimer’s Association

The study found that in the year leading up to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis women had significantly more brain atrophy, or wasting away. It also discovered that the shrinkage happened in different areas of the brain for men and women.

Warning signs

Memory loss that disrupts daily life.Challenges in planning or solving problems.Difficulty completing familiar tasks.Confusion with time or place.New problems with speaking or writing.Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.Decreased or poor judgment.Withdrawal from work or social activities.Changes in mood and personality.Trouble with visual images and spatial relationships. Source: Alzheimer’s Association

Although atrophy happened earlier in women, men eventually suffered the same amount of brain damage in a shorter period of time.

“You don’t expect those differences in rate of loss. I was surprised,” she said.

Spampinato and her colleagues analyzed brain images for 60 men and 49 women and mapped how Alzheimer’s affected them. She hopes that the research will lead to improved diagnosis and treatment.

“Treatments given early may work better,” she said.

Spampinato recently presented the results of her research to the Radiological Society of North America. Her findings will be published in an upcoming edition of a peer-reviewed medical journal.

A growing problem

One in eight older Americans, almost two-thirds of them women, have Alzheimer’s disease, a situation attributed to the fact that women typically live longer than men. When looked at by age, the illness occurs at about the same rate in men and women, according to an Alzheimer’s Association 2012 report.

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. No treatment is available. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved five drugs that temporarily improve symptoms. People 65 and older survive an average of four to eight years after diagnosis, the report states.

Of those with Alzheimer’s, an estimated 44 percent are ages 75 to 84, and 46 percent are 85 or older.

“As the number of older Americans grows rapidly, so too will the numbers of new and existing cases of Alzheimer’s disease,” the report states.

By 2025, South Carolina is expected to have 100,000 residents diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In 2010, the state had 80,000 reported cases of the disease. In 2011, the Palmetto State had more than 283,000 people caring for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. They included family members and health professionals, the report states.

‘No magic drug’

Brooke Hallman, widow of Mount Pleasant Mayor Harry Hallman, said he was being treated as if he had Alzheimer’s but after his death it was determined by analyzing brain tissue that his illness was Lewy body dementia, the second most common type of progressive dementia.

“There’s no magic drug. I don’t think anything really made him that much better or worse,” she said.

The late mayor donated his brain to the Carroll A. Campbell Jr. Neuropathology Laboratory at MUSC, named for the former governor who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Hallman said donations tripled because of her husband’s decision to provide his brain tissue to medical science.

“A lot of people don’t think to do the donation,” she said.

The laboratory is a state-wide research and service center dedicated to helping those combating Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other related neurological disorders.

“Researchers must study brain tissue from both patients with these diseases as well as those without in order to more clearly understand the causes of brain degeneration,” the lab states on its website.