Does Alzheimer's Have to Bankrupt Us?

All eyes are on London right now as they count down to the 2012 Olympic Games, but the event with the most global significance just happened 5,000 miles away in Vancouver.
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All eyes are on London right now as they count down to the 2012 Olympic Games, but the event with the most global significance just happened 5,000 miles away in Vancouver. The Alzheimer's Association is held its annual international conference in western Canada's urban gem, where the top minds from around the world are gathering 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 twenty-first century's greatest health and fiscal challenge.

The global forecast for Alzheimer's isn't good. Today, there are over 35 million people worldwide living with the disease, and total costs related to Alzheimer's are already an incredible 1% of global GDP. By 2030, 65 million people will have the disease, and by 2050, there will be 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 is simple: People are living longer than ever before, and the risk of Alzheimer's is nearly perfectly correlated with age. For those over 65, we are at one in eight risk of getting the disease. And it explodes to roughly one in two for those over 85.

But despite these foreboding figures, there's some good news coming out of the Alzheimer's Association International Conference. First, it has become clear that we are gaining an ever-increasing understanding of the risk factors associated with Alzheimer's. And as Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI) has recently reported, a proportion of these risk factors are "modifiable," to use the healthcare term. It is becoming clear that Alzheimer's isn't automatic with age. It seems that it may be more like lung cancer and diabetes, which can be controlled by healthy diets and lifestyles.

And this is a revolutionary insight, because it creates pathways to manage and even prevent Alzheimer's. If some of the 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, then the mysterious, unwavering vice-grip of Alzheimer's will be loosened, at least for some of us. And 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 their NCD Outcomes Document, they included Alzheimer's alongside diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. What the UN suggested in this document was that preventative strategies could stem the exorbitant rise of these diseases with the aging of the global population. And so it is of profound importance that the scientific community convening this week in Vancouver is corroborating this designation.

The second positive development to come from Vancouver is the news of the advancements that are being made with medical prophylactics and Alzheimer's treatments. The news, moreover is a triumph of private enterprise, as companies like Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Novartis and Nutricia have been investing billions into research and development for decades. And now, it seems, some of those investments are beginning to show results.

But a particularly interesting at the conference is the discussion around a product called Souvenaid. Souvenaid 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 has been picked up by Nutricia for further scientific development as they prepare to bring it to patients.

After over a decade 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, but one that has many in the community excited about its potential. As presented in Vancouver, Souvenaid's nutritional approach to supporting memory and cognitive function in aging adults is as exciting as it is innovative.

So while the London Olympics may take center stage this summer, it would be wise to pay attention to the news coming out of Vancouver. With more than two billion people over 60 by mid-century, Alzheimer's will destroy lives, families, and communities if we do not find better ways to treat and handle the disease.

Additionally, Alzheimer's also has the potential to break our healthcare 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 if left unchecked. Dr. Peter Piot, the former head of UNAIDS, has recognized as much, saying that Alzheimer's is a public health "time bomb." As the veteran leader behind the global fight against HIV/AIDS, his warning is worth heeding.

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