Age & Reason
The Fight Against Dementia Gets Two New Warriors
Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 6:38pm
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It’s not often that a British prime minister and a Broadway musical sing from the same songbook. But that’s what’s happening in New York this week. David Cameron is announcing that a top priority of the G8 presidency will be fighting dementia – while, over at the Duke Theatre in Manhattan, the musical “The Memory Show” has debuted, dramatizing the devastation families suffer when dealing with Alzheimer’s. 

If history is any guide, this unwitting confluence between politics and art may mean big things for Alzheimer’s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the fight against HIV/AIDS was embraced by politicians and artists alike, and in the span of two decades the disease evolved from a certain death sentence to a manageable illness.

It’s a truly miraculous story – one that owes its success to politicians and playwrights alike, not to mention scores of scientists, advocates, business partners, and others who made HIV/AIDS a top agenda item in both public and private sectors. 

This diverse attention is now being given to Alzheimer’s, a disease that is poised to become the nightmare of the 21st century without transformative breakthroughs in care, treatment, and prevention. With Alzheimer’s, more so than any other non-communicable disease, it is the ripple effect that is most destructive. Not only do individuals lose their emotional and intellectual lives, families spend years and even decades watching loved ones fall further and further away.

Communities, nations, and global organizations also spend untold billions on care and treatment. Already, Alzheimer’s consumes $604 billion annually, or 1 percent of global GDP, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg as longevity extends across the globe and we live into our hundreds as a matter of course.

The global Alzheimer’s epidemic, however, is only just beginning. As David Cameron noted when he committed the UK’s G8 presidency to addressing Alzheimer’s, “as more people live longer, [Alzheimer’s] is fast becoming one of the biggest social and healthcare challenges we face.” As the global population ages, rates of Alzheimer’s are poised to skyrocket, since aging and Alzheimer’s are today nearly perfectly correlated. One in every eight people over age 65 will fall victim, and Alzheimer’s will infect nearly half of those who live to see 85.

As longevity continues to stretch in the developed world, and as it leaps by decades in the developing world, Alzheimer’s will become a pandemic far greater than what we saw with HIV/AIDS a few decades ago. The need for a cure is urgent.

For all the peril, there is hope yet. Events in New York suggest how this fight can be won.

On one hand, solutions to Alzheimer’s will require concerted political action. David Cameron’s leadership through G8 is a great start. G8 nations are feeling the brunt of the Alzheimer’s explosion already; prioritizing research and global collaboration is a substantial first-step. We’ve seen similar efforts in the public sector with the OECD and the WHO, and parallel initiatives have recently been launched in the private sector, such as the CEO Initiative on Alzheimer’s, which aims to reduce the time and costs of developing Alzheimer’s therapies.

Cameron may be able to help move the needle. Developing nations will soon find themselves in similar or worse positions than G8 nations with Alzheimer’s, and their participation in this fight will be essential. While Cameron leads the G8, the OECD is also stepping up with its workshop this June at Oxford on Aging, Alzheimer’s and Big Data.  

“The Memory Show” and other creative depictions of Alzheimer’s can also be essential. For many, Alzheimer’s is still a foreign problem, one that “other” people have to deal with – or it’s  presumed to be a natural part of aging. “The Memory Show” and similar dramatic renderings of the struggle of this illness can evoke sympathy from mass audiences and put a face to the disease. The torturous, difficult and ethically debilitating struggle shown in the musical between Catherine Cox, the mother with Alzheimer’s, and Leslie Kritzer, the daughter forced to upend her life to provide care, is just a glimpse into what this century has in store. In the years ahead, millions of us will be forced to care for spouses and parents, and families and communities across the globe will again be torn apart by disease.

Last year, Dr. Peter Piot – who led UNAIDS through its historic achievement – claimed that Alzheimer’s was a “time bomb” and that a society-wide effort similar to the HIV/AIDS movement was needed. He also said it was a matter of human rights to find cure. Dr. Piot had been a leader of a movement born of need and commitment, and one where art drove politics, and politics pushed science. Art gave political face to the tragedy in the case of HIV/AIDs, it invoked shame, and created a pathos that rippled through society.

This week, we again see in two parallel but essential universes the evidence of a movement emerging. Can we find a way to “de-link” Alzheimer’s from aging? It may seem inconceivable, but so, too, did a cure for HIV/AIDS when Philadelphia debuted in cinemas twenty years ago and the young Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington brought the world closer through Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. That was then. Let’s imagine the same for this century’s nightmare of Alzheimer’s.

Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.