Two times a day, Betty Jaco of Irmo takes a mysterious gray pill.

About Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s is an irreversible, progressive brain disease. Symptoms generally begin to appear after age 60. It is the most common cause of dementia, or loss of cognitive functioning, among older people.Early signs can include:Getting lost.Trouble handling money and paying bills.Repeating questions.Taking longer to complete normal daily tasks.Poor judgment.Losing things or misplacing them in odd places.Mood and personality changes. Source: National Institute on Aging

It could be medicine, but maybe not.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said.

Jaco is one of about 120 people nationwide enrolled in a study of a substance being investigated to determine whether it slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Half are randomly selected to get the medicine and the rest receive a placebo.

She has been taking the pills for about four months.

“I can’t say that she’s much better but she doesn’t seem to be getting any worse,” said Kenneth Jaco, her husband.

The study was born when researchers noticed that people in certain areas of France have fewer instances of Alzheimer’s. They suspected it was because of something in the red wine.

“That was confirmed by science,” said Dr. Jacobo Mintzer, a geriatric psychiatrist at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The ingredient being tested is a compound called resveratrol that is found in wine, chocolate, tomatoes and peanuts, among other foods. Concentrated doses of resveratrol not found in food and beverages are being given to patients selected to receive the medication. Fourteen people in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s were chosen to participate in the local study.

“We should know the results in about a year,” Mintzer said.

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.

Jaco, 76, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago. She had been wondering if something was wrong with her health because she had lost interest in her computer and eventually quit using it. She had been quite computer literate because of her job as an employee benefits manager.

“I noticed that my skills were not the same,” she said.

Alzheimer’s disease is 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, the report states.

MUSC received a $194,000 federal grant to be one of 26 research hospitals taking part in the study. Jaco and the other participants are tested periodically with brain scans and by paper-and-pencil exams.

Another, larger study will take place if resveratrol is shown to have a beneficial effect on Alzheimer’s, Mintzer said.

The Jacos applied to participate in the study after reading about it in a newspaper ad.

“This is a wonderful group here. It’s been a good experience. I don’t know how much it’s helped,” she said.

Jaco said she continues to drive and engage in many activities of daily life.

“If I’m going somewhere, I have to stop and think, ‘Where am I going and how do I get there?’ ” she said.

An estimated 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the National Institute on Aging, the federal organization funding the study. That includes about 80,000 South Carolinians, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. That number is expected to rise to about 100,000 by 2025.