Alzheimer’s disease is a progressively degenerative condition that impacts memory and other important cognitive functions. Shauna Yuan, MD, a neurologist with University of Minnesota Physicians, pursued neurology because of diseases like Alzheimer’s that are extremely impactful on the patient and their loved ones yet don’t have many effective treatments. 

“I wanted to be in an area where I could really help patients and develop new treatments through research,” Dr. Yuan said. “I evaluate and treat patients with Alzheimer’s in the Memory Disorders Clinic at the University of Minnesota. I want to be able to help patients with the current treatment and speed up the translation of new therapies using my combined experience in clinical practice and basic science research.”

The disease is particularly devastating due to the lack of treatment options, which are only symptomatic, meaning they can improve quality of life but don’t target the root cause of the disease. With Alzheimer’s, memory problems transition into thinking problems, and the progressive decline continues until the point of incapacitation. 

Caring for someone with a disabling brain condition is difficult and demanding. Many neurologists, such as Dr. Yuan, try to keep track of the disease’s trajectory as it progresses from mild to severe. This helps inform caregivers so they know what to expect. “I try to let them know what may be coming. I help them understand and give them perspective. If their loved one says something to them, it’s not what they really think but rather it’s the disease,” Dr. Yuan said.

Over time, patients lose the ability to shop, dress and bathe—not to mention the financial burden of the disease. Patients value the support around them, but caregivers are also under great emotional stress as patients become more dependent. For caregivers, relying on the expertise of a healthcare professional to determine the best strategy is important. 

“It’s good to have a routine. Patients should stay engaged with their family members. The social support really helps. Try to learn strategies from other patients and caregivers to determine what works for your personal situation,” Dr. Yuan said. 

Dr. Yuan remains optimistic about the future of Alzheimer’s and is working hard to make her own contributions to the medical community’s understanding of the disease. This is why she regularly conducts basic science research with the hope that it translates to future clinical care. Her research involves taking patients’ skin biopsies and turning them into neurons—unique cells in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s—to try and understand how they behave. 

There has been a renewed interest in finding a drug that will impede the disease’s progression, but drug development takes a long time. “I do think that we will find effective treatments eventually. The National Institutes of Health has increased its funding for Alzheimer's, so we’re learning a lot more about it,” Dr. Yuan said.

She recognizes that the cause of Alzheimer’s is multifactorial. Genetics can play a strong role, including mutations in certain genes that significantly increase the risk. Advancing the scientific knowledge regarding the underpinnings of Alzheimer’s will allow providers to give better evidenced-based care. 

“We’re looking at new mechanisms for how the disease could spread. I think there’s hope,” she said.