Still Alice and the Hidden Tolls of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease

still_aliceIn Still Alice, Julianne Moore plays a college professor struggling with her diagnosis of a genetic form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Moore has already won two awards, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award, and is now nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

While her performance is clearly nothing short of noteworthy, the biggest takeaway from this film in the increase in awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, particularly early-onset. Still Alice has gained a reputation as an outlet for highlighting the “hidden tolls” and its “shockingly accurate” depiction of this neurodegenerative condition.

With this in mind, Penn Medicine’s Steven E. Arnold, MD, director of the Penn Memory Center, sat down with us to weigh in on the topic with his expert opinion.

Spoiler Alert: This video may contain spoilers for Still Alice.

The Penn Memory Center is a National Institute on Aging-designated Alzheimer’s Disease Center (ADC). Their team consists of board-certified, experienced physicians specializing in cognitive neurology, geriatric psychiatry, and geriatric medicine, and clinical professionals from disciplines including neuropsychology, psychometrics, nursing, psychotherapy, social work, and research management. They provide clinical care including evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, and research opportunities for patients experiencing symptoms related to Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment and related disorders, as well as providing support and resources to caregivers and family members.

For more information on the Penn Memory Center, visit:

Find more facts on the hidden tolls of Alzheimer’s disease that are highlighted in Still Alice, in the related NY Daily News article here.

Debunking the Common Myths of Aging ft. Sarah H. Kagan, PhD, RN

DrKaganBlogPicAccording to Sarah H. Kagan, PhD, RN, the idea of aging is not simply to live longer, but to live happier and healthier as well. As a Lucy Walker Honorary Term Professor of Gerontological Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, her goal is to help the aging community to do just that.

During her recent presentation on “Debunking the Common Myths of Aging” at a lunchtime workshop offered to Penn faculty and staff, Dr. Kagan explained that one way to live longer, happier, and healthier lives is to change the way that we think about aging. We must discredit the stigma that our age defines who we are, how we act, and what we are capable of. There is a common misconception that “the older you get the more invisible you get,” however, this notion is quickly taking a positive turn for older Americans in this recent longevity revolution. With the still-evolving science around what is “normal aging,” we are finding that many conditions and behaviors that we associate with getting older may actually be epigenetic diseases rather than aging-related diseases.

Epigenetic diseases are those that are influenced by a variety of non-genetic factors such as geographic location, personal habits, and other environmental factors. For example, an individual does not necessarily lose their ability to hear simply because of their age, but rather due to a variety or combination of other factors in their life such as frequent attendance at rock concerts or years of working around heavy machinery. Aging also often takes all of the stereotypical blame for wrinkles and grey hair when the true culprits such as UV exposure and a variety of genetic factors actually play major roles in these physical changes.

Dr. Kagan also explained how ageism, the stereotyping of individuals based on their age, is the same as any other form of discrimination. Not every senior becomes frail, experiences memory loss or needs a caregiver but society often forgets that. However, it is not only the younger generations that are guilty of this. Self-stereotyping is a huge issue as well. Older individuals need to stray away from the “I’m too old for that” mindset. After all, an individual’s aging experience is significantly influenced by how they think about it.


With that said, Dr. Kagam shared that for the most part, the aging community is actually a generally happy on despite the “old and grumpy” stereotype. She explained it as a “U-shaped curve.” Our level of happiness is very high at a young age, decreases around midlife, and increases again as we enter the “last half” of our lives. This level of happiness tends to be higher in those who maintain healthy social relationships, and at a population level, those with closer relationships tend to live longer.

Find more information on Dr. Kagan here.

Follow Dr. Kagan on Twitter here.


2014 Vincent J. Cristofalo Annual Lectureship ft. Alfred L. Goldberg, PhD

GoldbergCircleOn Wednesday, February 4, 2015, the Institute on Aging hosted its 2014 Vincent J. Cristofalo Annual Lectureship (originally scheduled for December 11, 2014). This year’s keynote speaker was Alfred L. Goldberg, PhD, professor of Cell Biology, Harvard Medical School. During his lecture on “New Insights into Proteasome Function: From Destroying Misfolded Proteins to Disease Therapy,” Dr. Goldberg discussed his lab’s new advances in the elimination of damaged proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, as well as the new developments that suggest new approaches to treating such diseases.

The lectureship began with a tribute to Dr. Vincent J. Cristofalo, a pioneer in aging research and the founder of the Center for the Study of Aging (now the IOA) at the University of Pennsylvania, by Robert J. Pignolo, MD, PhD, associate profess of medicine, Division of Geriatric Medicine, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Presbyterian Medical Center of Philadelphia. Immediately following the lecture and Q&A session, guests were invited to stay and enjoy light refreshments at the lectureship’s reception.


“This annual tribute to Vincent J. Cristofalo is to acknowledge in perpetuity his contributions to aging research, his critical scientific thinking, as well as his commitment to mentees, colleagues, friends, and family.” – Robert J. Pignolo, MD, PhD

View more photos from the event here.

Learn more about the IOA’s Vincent J. Cristofalo Annual Lectureship here.

Does lifespan extension equate to healthspan extension? ft. Brian K. Kennedy, PhD

On Thursday, January 15, 2015, Brian K. Kennedy, PhD visited Penn’s Institute on Aging to discuss his work in aging research. Dr. Kennedy, President and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, presented a lecture on “Drugs that Forestall Aging – Extending Healthspan.” His most recent work, which you can learn more about in the video interview below, is based around studying the “TOR pathway,” or the target of rapamycin, and this drug’s recently discovered ability to extend lifespan in mice. One of Dr. Kennedy’s goals is to determine whether pathways like TOR can be regulated to treat aging-related diseases, specifically focusing on cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome like type II diabetes.

Find more information on Dr. Kennedy and his research here and in the video below.



Tom Montine, MD, PhD visits Penn to discuss “Precision Medicine for the Molecular and Clinical Complexity of Dementia”

MONTINEcircleLast Thursday, January 8, 2015, the Institute on Aging (IOA) hosted our first Visiting Scholars Series event of the new year. Tom Montine, MD, PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Pathology, University of Washington, presented his lecture on “Precision Medicine for the Molecular and Clinical Complexity of Dementia.”

Dr. Montine is no stranger to Penn. He directs both the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) and the Pacific Northwest Udall Parkinson’s Disease Center at the University of Washington and has been a long time collaborator with the related centers here as well. He has worked extensively with many Penn researchers especially John Trojanowski, MD, PhD, Director, Penn’s Institute on Aging, Penn’s Alzheimer’s Disease Core Center (ADCC), and Penn’s Udall Center for Parkinson’s Disease Research, Virginia, M.-Y. Lee, PhD, MBA, Director, Penn’s Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, Gerry Schellenberg, PhD, Professor, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Penn ADCC collaborator via Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Consortium, and Li-San Wang, PhD, Associate Professor, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Penn ADCC collaborate via National Institute of Aging Genetics of Alzheimer’s Disease Data Storage Site (NIAGADS), just to name a few.

His work with Drs. Schellenberg and Wang focuses mainly on molecular drivers in disease and genetic risk related to endophenotypes in Alzheimer’s disease as well as using pathologic data instead of simply clinical diagnosis.

View a list of the IOA’s upcoming Visiting Scholars Series lectures here.

Penn Medicine’s Howard Hurtig, MD Discusses Recognizing the Differences of Alzheimer’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia in his recent PsychCentral Feature

A recent PsychCentral article featuring Penn Medicine’s Howard Hurtig, MD, Chair, Department ofNeurology, Pennsylvania Hospital and Clinical Core Leader of Penn’s Udall Center for Parkinson’s Disease Research, discusses the importance of differentiating between the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and its lesser-known cousin, Lewy Body Dementia (LBD).

lbdaNot only does the general public know less about LBD, but physicians also often misdiagnose it as Alzheimer’s disease. While both are indeed neurodegenerative diseases associated with aging, the difference is the LBD affects the areas of the brain that are responsible for behavior, memory, movement, and personality, while Alzheimer’s primarily affects the areas of the brain that control learning and memory. However, that is not the only difference between the two diseases.

According to PsychCentral’s quote from Dr. Hurtig, “while symptoms of LBD may be similar to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, the treatment strategy is more challenging because fewer medications can be used safely.” Because some drugs that are prescribed for Alzheimer’s disease can be very harmful to those with LBD, Hurtig stressed that one of the most important things in recognizing the difference between these diagnoses is to ensure the patient is avoiding all medications that may worsen symptoms.

The full article is available here.

Image courtesy of Lewy Body Dementia Association via PsychCentral.

Highlights from the 1st Annual Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Forum

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 2.36.43 PMThe first Annual Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Forum was held last year on September 24, 2014 following Governor Corbett’s acceptance of the Pennsylvania State Plan for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders. Over 150 participants, including government officials, Alzheimer’s Association chapters, other advocacy groups, and leading academic researchers, joined together in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the event.

The forum, which consisted of a keynote lecture by this year’s speaker, Dr. Randi Chapman, Director of State Affairs for the National Alzheimer’s Association, and several other breakout sessions, was built as a way to not only evaluate the progress of the State Plan and to discuss the next steps, but also to enhance partnerships and community support surrounding it.

View the official summary of the forum, including the seven (7) recommendations featured in the State Plan, here.