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MADISON — As sequestration and budget cuts make it harder for American scientists to get federal support for even the most promising research, Dr. Mark Sager has a reason to smile.
Sager, director of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute (WAI), and his colleagues recently received great news from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. The WAI was awarded a five-year, $4.2 million award to support core activities in the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP) and its many sub-studies. In addition, the registry earned a “high program relevance” designation, meaning it serves a national interest worth protecting. The grant comes from NIA discretionary funds.
Sager, also a professor of medicine (geriatrics) at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), has led the WAI since 1998. It brings together service providers, community organizations, educational institutions and advocacy groups to improve the availability and quality of care for people with dementia and their families. The institute has 44 affiliated dementia diagnostic clinics statewide and is involved in numerous research projects.
WRAP is the nation’s largest study of healthy, middle-aged people who may be at risk because they have a parent with the disease. The study offers researchers a better understanding of the biological, medical and environmental factors that increase Alzheimer’s risk.
Started in 2001, WRAP now has more than 1,500 participants from all over Wisconsin and beyond. Once every two to four years, participants come to study sites in Madison, Milwaukee and La Crosse from Wisconsin, California, Canada and as far away as Saudi Arabia so they can be part of the project.
“Most of the participants are in the study because they’re concerned about their children,” said Sager. “Once you’ve had a parent with this disease, you do everything you can to ensure that your kids don’t get it.”
Of the 44 clinics, seven (plus a WRAP research site) are in greater Milwaukee. With the highest population density in Wisconsin, Milwaukee also has a diverse population relating to age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Studies show that African-Americans are at a higher risk — perhaps two to three times the risk compared to whites — for developing Alzheimer’s or dementia. Researchers aren’t completely certain, but it could be because of lifestyle. African-Americans also have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and heart attacks, all risk factors for developing dementia.
“There’s also a role played in social determinants like stress levels, getting enough rest, finding the right foods to eat,” said Gina Green-Harris, director of the Milwaukee Outreach Program and Services, part of WAI. “These are definitely things that pose risks in local communities.”
African-American and Hispanic/Latino participation in WRAP has increased significantly through concerted efforts to attract more people to take part.
“We’ve made it our business to make sure we’re educating all populations about research. It doesn’t have to be invasive and clinical,” said Green-Harris. “People can be a part of the solution with a minimal amount of invasiveness.”
With a growing participant pool and five more years of funding secured, the nation’s largest long-term study of healthy relatives of people with Alzheimer’s disease aims for continued involvement of research volunteers and someday developing interventions that can protect people against the disease.
“We truly are a statewide initiative, not just because we’re the UW, but because this is such a terrible disease,” said Sager. “Alzheimer’s disease affects families and it affects them very deeply, so it’s the dedication of the people of Wisconsin and people from all over the country that have made this project a success.”
The 44 WAI-affiliated clinics provide medical and social assessments to more than 3,000 new patients annually.
The clinics can be found in the following cities: Ashland; Beaver Dam; Beloit; Chippewa Falls; Crystal Falls, Michigan; De Pere; Eau Claire (three sites); Fort Atkinson; Friendship; Green Bay; Janesville; La Crosse (two sites); Madison (three sites); Manitowoc; Marquette, Michigan; Mauston; Menomonee Falls; Milwaukee (seven sites); Monroe; Neenah; Oconomowoc; Platteville; Racine; Reedsburg; Rhinelander; Rice Lake; Richland Center; Spooner; Sturgeon Bay; Waukesha; Wausau; Wauwatosa; and West Bend.