The new year will bring intensive research on Alzheimer's disease, but very little real hope for the millions condemned to a living death by it.

"It remains the worst of all diseases," says Jerome Stone, founding president ofthe Alzheimer's Association."The cost of care, the emotional burden on families, the legal, socail and financial burdens--all of these fall on the family or caretakers because the victim cannot take care of himself or herself," Stone said.

The disease shuts down the brain. Fiorgetfulness and memory loss turn loved ones into strangers and lead inexorably to a vegetative state.

It strikes from 7 to 8 percent of those beyond the age of 65. The incidence reaches 25 percent among those who live to their mid-80's.

Stone said 1989 holds one promise--initial findings from two years of human testing on a drug that shows signs of reversing some of the intellectual decay in the early stages of the disease. The drug, called THA, is being tested on from 200 to 300 Alzheimer's patients at 17 centers in the United States.

"No one is making a claim they can cure the disease with a drug, but that they can decrease the deterioration and give more meaning to the lives of victims, at the early stages particularly," Stone said in an interview.

"We are very hopeful of that."

THA--short for tetrahydroaminoacridine and sometimes called tacrine--caused liver damage in some of the patients and the clinical tests were halted at one point.

However, a spokesman for Warner-Lambert Co., which is providing the drug as part of its $3 million support for the nearly $5-million study, said lower doses resolved the liver problem.

Stone, former chairman of Stone Container Corp., lost his first wife to the disease.

"We've had more clues unearthed in the last three to four years than in the over 80 years since Alois Alzheimer first named the disease, back in 1906," he said.

"There is a continuing stastical item showing that maybe as many as 20 percent of Alzheimer's victims have had a blow to the head at some age, indicatingk that could be one of the causative elements," he added.

"There is a plaguing, not so far very scientific evaluation, that Alzheimer's victims have more aluminum content in their brains at autopsy than others; but we don't know whether that's cause or effect," he said.

"One of the theories that has been emerging is that it's a slow virus, one that doesn't develop untilo you are at a certain age," Stone said.

Recent research also uncovered a defective gene that is the most likely cause on an inherited form of the disease.

Vigorous research continues worldwide, Stone said, but the cause of the disease remains a mystery. It is the fifth leading cause of death on the United States.

The association that Stone helped found, along with its local chapters, raises about $30 million a year, he said, of which the national organization spends about $3 million annually on research.

"More importantly we have increased through our advocacy program, going to Congress, the research budget at the National Institutes of Health. It was in the neighborhood in the 1970s of $2 million to $3 million," he said.

"In the current year it's about $125 million/ That's quite an increase. But when you consider that the cost of caring for Alzheimer's victims alone was $48 billion this year, in the United States alone, you understand that the cost of research is still miniscule," he said.

Alzheimer's disease represents what some experts have called a demographic time bomb, likely to detonate in developed nations as the percentage of the older population increases.

By the year 2020 in the United States, Stone said, the over-65 group will have increased considerably and "you could very well have some 7.5 million to 8 million Alzheimer's patients, and that could cost some $70 billion a year for care."

Currently there are 2.5 million victims in the United States, 800,000 of them in nursing homes and 1.7 million being cared for at home.

Stone said the incidence of the disease is similar in other developed nationa, although figures are not available for Soviet bloc countries or for underdeveloped areas of the world.