Alzheimer's disease, a fatal, annihilating brain disorder, affects millions of men and women around the world. In the United States alone, perhaps one in five persons aged 75 or older suffers from it, though hundreds of thousands of younger people also bear the condition.
Despite its ubiquity, the malady was, until recently, considered a "backwater disease" to which little research attention (and funding) was paid. Advances in gene research, some spearheaded by neurologist Rudolph Tanzi, have led to a new understanding of the causes of Alzheimer's disease, and new possibilities for its cure. In this well-written account of that research, Tanzi and journalist-co-author Ann Parson examine the role of amyloid neuritic plaque, "mucked-up, misfolded protein that fibrilizes and forms rock-hard aggregates that the body can't get rid of." This plaque occurs in humans and certain other carnivorous species (including bears and dogs), and it appears to play a role in neurologic disorders of several kinds. Tanzi reports on recent studies in the use of cholesterol-reducing drugs in lessening levels of "brain dirt," as well as on research that suggests that cardiovascular exercise and a diet low in animal fats can benefit the brain as well as the body. He even cautiously hints that the conquest of Alzheimer's may occur in the very near future. For the time being, his book provides a thoughtful portrait of the illness and of the scholars and scientists who have devoted their lives to combating it. --Gregory McNamee