“We’re going to cure it.”

Those words, said by neurologist Russell Swerdlow, a University of Kansas researcher, offer a glimmer of hope for families who either have loved ones who suffer or have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

KU is one of 29 national centers, funded by the National Institute on Aging, conducting research on Alzheimer’s disease. Each center is examining a different aspect of the disease, which affects more than 5.1 million people annually, according to the National Institute on Aging. Those numbers are expected to increase as the U.S. population continues to age and live longer. KU’s center, as featured in a recent report in Kansas Alumni magazine, is the only one focusing on “metabolism as a clue to treatment and prevention.” Swerdlow, along with fellow neurologist and researcher Jeffrey Burns, is studying the connection between exercise and its effect on the brain. They specifically are looking at whether the brain energy metabolism can be used to identify the causes of Alzheimer’s and find ways to avoid its early onset in patients.

This pioneering research earned the center a five-year, $6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of diet and exercise on the aging population’s brain with the hope of preventing or slowing down the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. While some people assume that dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are a natural part of aging, that isn’t the case. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America describes the disease as a “progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, resulting in loss of memory, thinking and language skills, and behavioral changes.” In other words, this isn’t simply about forgetting names or tasks. It instead is a change in behavior.

No cure exists for Alzheimer’s today, and few treatments are available to even treat the disease, which affects one of every two people age 85 and older and one in eight for those age 65 and older. Early research by the KU team indicates that exercise might have a positive effect on reducing amyloid — the protein that gathers in Alzheimer sufferers’ brains, causing plaque that negatively impacts the brain. The researchers are working with fitness facilities in the Kansas City and Lawrence areas and with live patients to test their theories with the hope of eventually developing drugs that might offer the same benefits as exercise to help ward off the disease.

A national plan also is in place to help fight the disease. It’s led by Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Health and Human Services secretary and former Kansas governor.

While the benefits of this research will benefit Kansans, it also has the potential to aid people all across the U.S. and beyond. Until a cure is found, people of all ages can work to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s by exercising regularly to forestall the disease before it begins its memory-robbing threat for yet another family.


— Jeanny Sharp,

editor and publisher