Hopes high at brain institute

By the time Alzheimer's is diagnosed, the damage is done.

The patient is showing signs of confusion and memory loss.

With no cure, just drugs to suppress symptoms, Alzheimer's progresses until the person eventually dies.

Those behind the walls of Nevada's Lou Ruvo Brain Institute are pushing for a cure, not just to treat Alzheimer's, said Zaven Khachaturian, president and chief executive officer.

"It is becoming quite clear that these particular memory disorders do not start at the onset of symptoms,'' he said. "When patients get to the point of seeing a physician, quite a bit has already happened. Neurodegenerative brain disorders do their damage silently over a 20- to 30-year period.''

The effects of Alzheimer's are of particular concern in Nevada, which has the highest projected growth rate of dementia and Alzheimer's in the country, said Deborah Schaus, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association Desert Southwest Chapter Southern Nevada Region.

By 2010, an estimated 29,000 people age 65 and older with Alzheimer's will live in Nevada, a 38 percent jump from 2000.

"All of Arizona and Southern Nevada is still just this hot retirement region and, as a result, we are in desperate need for resources to deal with age-related issues in general,'' Schaus said.

Khachaturian recently published a paper in Alzheimer's and Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer's Association, where he highlighted recommendations of 40 international experts on how to accelerate cures for memory disorders.

The recommendations were discussed in December at a brain institute-sponsored symposium in Las Vegas. A similar symposium is planned this December in which recommendations will be finalized and sent to the next U.S. president.

Those recommendations include focusing on early detection and prevention and changing the patent laws so drugs can be developed more quickly.

Khachaturian said it is time for the federal government to spend more on research that looks at preventing neurodegenerative disorders. If not, the country is facing a major public health crisis.

Millions are going to be desperate for public health services, he said.

"A person diagnosed with Alzheimer's between ages 60 and 65, their life expectancy is 90 or close to 100. That means the person is going to be disabled for 30 to 40 years. That's very, very costly,'' he said. "In the worst case scenario for cancer, a person lives maybe five or six years, then they die.''

Khachaturian said the current out-of-pocket cost for someone with a dementia-related illness is about $60,000 to $70,000 a year. If indirect costs are added, the number can reach well into six digits.

"Say, for example, a woman loses her husband in her 70s and is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She has two children who live in states other than Nevada. One is going to have to quit their job and move to Nevada to care for their mother. That person has now lost their job and the potential for career growth.''

Alzheimer's is a progressive and fatal brain disorder that destroys brain cells, causing problems with behavior as well as memory. The problems are severe enough to affect work, hobbies and social life.

It is the most common form of dementia and the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States, affecting an estimated 5 million Americans. That figure is expected to increase as 78 million baby boomers age, Khachaturian said.

Peggy Gutting, a family care consultant for the Alzheimer's Association Desert Southwest Chapter Southern Nevada Region, said she hears stories every day of family members trying to find services for their loved ones with Alzheimer's.

"The caregiver is stressed to the point of no return,'' she said. "People need support groups and financial and legal aid. We have to walk them through the system.''

Schaus said a big component of the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute is that a lot of services people need will all be under one roof. Today, the services are piecemeal. If a family needs assistance, they have to go in different directions.

"In many ways, we've had a fragmented system,'' she said. "That's going to change once the brain institute is open.''

Khachaturian said the brain institute will focus on all memory disorders and dementia associated with Alzheimer's, Huntington's, Parkinson's, and Lou Gehrig's diseases and other brain dysfunctions.

He said staff will also look at neurodegenerative disorders that affect children.

Khachaturian said he hopes the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, 9101 W. Sahara Ave., near Fort Apache Road, will have all its services available under one roof by January.

Contact reporter Annette Wells at awells @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.