A panel of experts discuss the possible treatment and future of the Alzheimer's disease.
A panel of experts discusses Alzheimer's disease prevention and treatments at a kickoff discussion for the South Texas Alzheimer's Conference. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Alzheimer’s disease experts from across the globe gathered Sunday afternoon at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts for a panel discussion kicking off the inaugural South Texas Alzheimer’s Conference, which is focusing on Alzheimer’s in Hispanic communities.

The conference, which runs Monday and Tuesday, also will address personalized medicine looking into individual biomarkers for risk, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Dr. Sudha Seshadri, founding director of the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Disease at UT Health San Antonio, told Sunday’s crowd of more than 150 that a recent $1 million grant from philanthropists Bill and Rebecca Reed will create a precision medicine and palliative care program within the Biggs Institute to further research looking into Alzheimer’s as a manageable disease.

“The key to defeating this illness, like every other illness, will come from basic and clinical science, and from facts that [come about] due to the hard work of researchers,” Seshadri said.

Director of the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer's and Neurodegenerative Diseases Dr. Sudha Seshadri
Dr. Sudha Seshadri heads the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Biggs Institute, which opened in 2017 in an effort to research the disease and provide comprehensive care for patients locally, organized the conference in collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Association, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, and the Darrell K. Royal Research Fund for Alzheimer’s Disease.

During Sunday afternoon’s conversation, which examined protecting brains from Alzheimer’s disease through lifestyle changes prior to diagnosis, panelist Dr. Ken Kosik, co-director of the neuroscience research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that, while there are certain genetic factors involved in the development of the disease, “everyone is at risk.”

“We really have two choices right now: We can wait for [a Food and Drug Administration]-approved drug to reduce risk for dementia, or we can implement risk reduction efforts,” Kosik said. “It is the lifestyle risks that we can all do something about – it’s really not rocket science.”

Alzheimer’s disease affects an estimated 5.5 million Americans 65 and older and is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. There is one new Alzheimer’s case every 65 seconds, and Texas ranks fourth in the number of diagnoses and second in the number of deaths, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

In Hispanic populations, people are 1.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

Evidence suggests brain changes caused by Alzheimer’s disease may begin up to 20 years before a person is diagnosed with dementia. While there is no cure, research shows people can lower their risk for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, by maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting good sleep, and effectively managing stress.

In addition, Kosik said, maintaining strong social connections and participating in activities that challenge thinking help to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

A diet filled with healthy fats, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables, modeled after the Mediterranean diet, is recommended, said Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas, panelist and associate professor of Neurology at the Department of Neurology at Columbia University. “There are many reasons why diet could affect our brain functioning,” including processing amyloids, a cerebral protein contributing to vascular changes in the brain, Scarmeas said.

Dr. Maria Carrillo, chief science officer with the Alzheimer’s Association, said her organization has $165 million committed to researching treatment and medication in 25 countries across the globe. “A cure can come from anywhere,” she said.

Chief Science Officer of the Alzeimer's Association Dr. Maria Carrillo
Dr. Maria Carrillo is chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Association. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“There is a difference between normal aging and dementia, and as we continue to gain insight and [do more research] we will be able to treat this through a combination of lifestyle changes and pharmacological therapies,” Carrillo said.

The South Texas Alzheimer’s Conference is from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at the Wyndham Garden San Antonio Riverwalk Hotel at 103 9th St.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.