Rare diseases – such as Alzheimer’s in anyone under age 60 – are heart-wrenching and tragic. But they don’t get vast public attention, unlike communicable diseases such as TB, malaria, Ebola or, more recently, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
This is partly why I’d held off going to see the Oscar-winning film, Still Alice. For one thing, it used a relatively young 50-something as the central character suffering from Alzheimer’s disease – which seemed odd, given that Alzheimer’s is one of the seminal health problems of today’s aging America. And two, movies (to me at least) are meant for escape and entertainment, not tragedy and emotional upheaval.
So I’d resisted. Until now. How wrong I was on both counts. Julianne Moore’s portrayal of the impact of Alzheimer’s on an individual and her family is not only breathtaking and captivating (no wonder she won the Oscar for best actress) – but beyond that the film shared critical information in a visually striking and intellectually significant way.
The film shares (to name but a few) the creative use of technology in the early stages of the disease to assist memory loss; the dearth of medicines available for more limited help; the decline of simple everyday actions like bathing and cleaning; the social isolation caused by other people’s ignorance of the disease; and the small amount of funding dedicated to finding a cure.
Perhaps the film, beyond its release date and Oscar glory, will help elevate a focus on what is rapidly becoming the public health, social and fiscal nightmare of our 21st century.
It may do that partly because of its uniqueness. Clearly a story about a grandmother in her 80s wouldn’t have done what a young, smart, vivacious and beautiful Columbia University linguistics professor managed to do. Yet Alzheimer’s demands attention not because of its horrible impact on one person but because of the vast numbers it will affect if we don’t find a cure. In this century Alzheimer’s will affect billions of people around the globe when you multiply the tens of millions by the impact on whole families and communities.
The $604 billion spent on it today, or roughly one percent of global GDP, will in time be dwarfed.
We’re living 30 years longer on average than people did in the last century – so the age when Alzheimer’s would have affected just a tiny number of people is long gone. We fail to get this at our peril.
It was perhaps the clear and articulate portrayal in Still Alice of the genetic impact of Alice’s Alzheimer’s – on how it might affect her children and grandchildren – that is the most important aspect of the film. Pondering right now our longevity and what’s at stake for the rest of the population is what makes Alzheimer’s a public issue of great importance today.
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