All eyes are on London right now as it counts down to the 2012 Olympic Games, but the event with the most global significance has just happened 5,000 miles away – in Vancouver. The Alzheimer’s Association held its annual international conference in western Canada’s urban gem, where the top minds from around the world gathered to share research, discuss future challenges, and get a “state of the union” update on Alzheimer’s a disease that can only be described as the 21st century’s greatest health and fiscal challenge.
The global forecast for Alzheimer’s is not good. Today, over 35 million people worldwide are living with the disease, and total costs related to Alzheimer’s are already an incredible 1 percent of global GDP. By 2030, 65 million people will have the disease, and by 2050, that number will swell to over 115 million people. Since the fiscal costs will rise along with the number of cases, it is no overstatement to claim that Alzheimer’s will be a worldwide fiscal nightmare.
The reason for the astronomical rise in rate of occurrence? Simple: People are living longer than ever before, and the risk of Alzheimer’s is nearly perfectly correlated with age. For those over 65, 1 in 8 are at risk of getting the disease. For those over age 85, it explodes to roughly 1 in 2.
Still, some good news has come out of the Alzheimer’s Association meeting. First, it’s become clear that we’re gaining an ever-increasing understanding of the risk factors associated with the disease. As Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) has recently reported, a proportion of these risk factors are modifiable, to use the health care term. It’s becoming clear that Alzheimer’s isn’t automatic with age: It seems, in fact, that it may be more like lung cancer and diabetes, which can be controlled by healthy diets and lifestyles.
This is a revolutionary insight, because it creates pathways to manage and even prevent Alzheimer’s. If some factors that lead to the disease are modifiable, then they are avoidable. For so long, Alzheimer’s has been seen as something beyond prevention, treatment and repair. If we can lock down these modifiable risk factors, the mysterious, unwavering vice-grip of Alzheimer’s can be loosened, at least for some of us. New pathways to living and managing the disease will open up. In addition, as Alzheimer’s becomes demystified, it may also become de-stigmatized.
Last fall, the United Nations made an important step in this direction. In its NCD Outcomes Document, it included Alzheimer’s alongside diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. What the UN suggested was that preventative strategies could stem the exorbitant rise of these diseases with the aging of the global population. So it’s of profound importance that the scientific community that convened this week in Vancouver has corroborated this designation.
The second positive development to come from Vancouver is the news of the advancements being made with medical prophylactics and Alzheimer’s treatments. The news is a triumph of private enterprise, as companies like Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Novartis, and Nutricia have been investing billions into R and D for decades. Now, it seems, some of this is beginning to show results.
One point of particular interest made at the conference concerned a product called Souvenaid, which is the result of an important scientific collaboration between Nutricia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, Dr. Richard Wurtman invented a nutrient mixture that “promotes new connections between brain cells.” This “nutrient cocktail” is made from naturally occurring dietary compounds, and it’s been picked up by Nutricia for further scientific development as the company prepares to bring it to patients.
After a decade or more of research and testing, Souvenaid has undergone a comprehensive scientific and regulatory process of three different but highly rigorous clinical trials. This is groundbreaking for a nutritional product – and one that has many in the community excited about its potential. Souvenaid’s nutritional approach to supporting memory and cognitive function in aging adults – as presented in Vancouver – is as exciting as it is innovative.
While the Olympics in London will naturally attract weeks of attention and more, let’s pay close attention to the news out of Vancouver. With more than two billion people over age 60 by mid-century, Alzheimer’s will destroy lives, families and communities if we do not find better ways to treat and handle it. Additionally, Alzheimer’s also has the potential to break our health care systems and the budgets behind them. If we don’t make significant strides in prevention, treatment and cures, Alzheimer’s will turn the miracle of longevity into a society-wide curse. Dr. Peter Piot, the former head of UNAIDS, has recognized as much, saying Alzheimer’s is a public health “time bomb.” As the veteran leader behind the global fight against HIV/AIDS, his warning is worth heeding.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.