"Hope is a waking dream," Aristotle once wrote.
Anything, indeed, is possible. Yet misplaced hopes prolong the nightmare.
There is a bolus of misplaced hope today on the Alzheimer's front, prolonging the nightmare, as we desperately seek a cure -- often times reaching fathomably for the quick fix, the false hopes. But there is no easy way out of this nightmare. Alzheimer's is a vicious, complex disease for which there is no snake oil.
I have a direct stake. Five years ago, I was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's. I covet the quick fix, but sadly it's not at hand.
"The public needs to understand -- and researchers need to better explain -- that we will beat Alzheimer's only with its full-throated support of fact-based science," David Shenk, author of the masterful book The Forgetting, and Dr. Rudy Tanzi, chairman of the Research Consortium at Cure Alzheimer's Fund and a professor of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal.
The statistics are numbing:
• Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and the only leading disease still on the rise. More than 5.5 million Americans have been diagnosed today with Alzheimer's or related dementia, and about 35 million people worldwide.
• In the next 35 years, these numbers will triple, barring a medical breakthrough. By 2050, 135 million worldwide will have some form of dementia.
• In the next 15 years, Alzheimer's is expected to exceed cancer and heart disease sevenfold. Without a cure, it will bankrupt Medicare. Annual health care costs will increase from $203 billion in 2013 to $1.1 trillion in 2050.
• Tragically, the federal government last year appropriated only $591 million for research into the disease (about the cost of a single long-range bomber).
And we're going to halt this disease with barking salesmen and carnival cures? As comedic savants Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler have discoursed in a celebrated Saturday Night Live skit, "Really!?!"
Write Dr. Tanzi and Shenk in their WSJ piece on Alzheimer's, "Thirty years ago, the world latched on to false hope that aluminum in antiperspirants and cookware was the culprit. Then came the cinnamon cure, the cayenne-pepper cure, the coconut-oil cure. The latest buzz is to say 'yes' to marijuana and 'no' to gluten and carb."
Sure, less pizza, a swig of coconut oil, some cinnamon on your oatmeal, and a few tokes of dope might be good in the moment (please use deodorant if you're going to hang with me), but these strategies will not cure Alzheimer's; it's not like flipping a switch, the experts say, people far smarter people than me. Such false hopes distract from sound research in a disturbing disconnect that serves only to delay the rescue.
The other day, I warned my brother-in-law about the flight of Alzheimer's coming. I said I was the canary in the coalmine. "Then we shoot the canary!" he replied. Made me think of the sage observation of the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz: "Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking."
And have you heard about Jellyfish?
A Florida researcher studying comb jellyfish has gained traction in a new form of brain development that could lead to treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other neurodegenerative diseases, according to a recent report in Newsmax. "Comb jellies ... can regenerate their brains in less than four days. In one experiment, a comb jelly regenerated its brain four times," the report states.
The barkers have started selling new cures. Praise the Lord and pass the Aricept!
Yet there is extraordinary science in play. Biogen recently reported encouraging results in clinical trials of its drug "aducanumab," which clears destructive beta-amyloid from the brain, note Dr. Tanzi and Shenk. In April, Duke University's Carol Colton reported a promising new drug target for reducing brain inflammation.
The prominent research consortium Cure Alzheimer's Fund (which I proudly support), recently funded a breakthrough experiment by Dr. Tanzi and his colleague Doo Yeon Kim that recreated real time Alzheimer's in living human brain cells in a petri dish.
Another consortium breakthrough, Dr. Tanzi and Shenk report, drew a distinguished National Health Institutes of Health "Blueprint" grant for drug development in clinical trials to patients.
"To cure Alzheimer's ultimately, we need to support serious research," Shenk, a senior advisor to the Cure Alzheimer's Fund, told me in a recent interview. "This is a very complicated disease, one of the most complicated diseases we've ever seen. Understandably, people get latched on to 'wouda-shoulda-coulda' cures, the simple stupid stuff, and they take eyes off the ball. We need to stay focused."
And thus we must shout from the Capitol Dome for exponentially increased federal appropriations.
Finding a cure for Alzheimer's and the development of innovative pharmaceuticals is much like the game of Mouse Trap, the 1980 video arcade, manufactured by Exidy, in which a player uses a four-position joystick to maneuver a mouse throughout a maze, gobbling up cheese scattered along the paths. One at a time, six cats are released into the labyrinth to chase the player; the maze is equipped with three sets of color-coded doors, which the player can open or shut by pressing the corresponding buttons in order to block the cats' approach.
Or perhaps more like Pac-Man: Alzheimer's is a sickness that runs in circles or meanders for an eventual kill. It's analogous to the prototypical arcade game Pac-Man in which a pie-faced yellow icon navigates a maze of challenges, eating Pac-dots to get to the next level. While the iconic video game was designed to have no ending, there are no "power pellets" in Alzheimer's to consume the enemies of ghosts, goblins, and monsters, as this Pac-Man in slow motion consumes brain cells, one by one.
Let's keep real hopes of a waking dream alive...
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diagnosed in 2009 at age 59 with Early Onset Alzheimer's, award-winning investigative reporter, Greg O'Brien, acting on instinct and journalistic grit, felt compelled to document his experience. He began compiling a blueprint of strategies, faith, and humor, a day-to-day focus on living with Alzheimer's, not dying with it--a hope that all is not lost when it appears to be. Those notes became his latest book, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's. Since publication, O'Brien has become the recipient of the 2015 International Book Award for Health 50+; the 2015 Beverly Hills International Book Award, Medical division; a 2015 Montaigne Medal Finalist; and a 2015 Eric Hoffer Category Finalist. He also is the subject of the short film, "A Place Called Pluto," directed by award-winning filmmaker Steve James. O'Brien's maternal grandfather and his mother died of the disease and he carries a marker gene for Alzheimer's. He is a spokesperson for USAgainstAlzheimers, and recently has been appointed to the National Alzheimer's Early Stage Advisory Group for the Association where his position will allow him to spread the word about this disease on the national stage. For more information go to: OnPluto.org.