Our War Against Alzheimer's

Across America this past weekend, there were two huge advances for our war on Alzheimer’s. On the West Coast, a team of Alzheimer’s experts earned the highest honors at the 2017 XPRIZE Visioneers Summit, and on the East Coast, a premier showing of a new film shed light on the human toll of Alzheimer’s.

At the 25th Hamptons International Film Festival, The Leisure Seeker captured the issues of dignity and freedom at the heart of the Alzheimer’s crisis. This is a beautiful and bittersweet, but very sobering story about an aging couple, one with advanced cancer and the other with rapidly deteriorating Alzheimer’s, who take their 1970s Winnebago for one last ride.

Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are brilliant at acting the genius captured by Paolo Virzi, who directed the film, Michael Zadoorian, who wrote the original novel, and Stephen Amidon, who adapted it to screenplay. All 5 – actors, writers, director – get the aging thing exactly right – it’s about independence, freedom, and dignity. The concluding song, Janis Joplin’s classic “Me and Bobby McGee,” in which she bellows, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” is itself a wonderful and very clever reminder that our ability to live and die with freedom and independence still counts in our era of unprecedented, historically breakthrough longevity, especially when longer life is too often still accompanied by illness and worse.

But while the mostly 50+ Hamptons Crowd were taking in the most creative and cutting-edge cinema – including this film about an aging couple that commits euthanasia to rid their adult children of the burden of care – in California, a team developed a bold impact proposal for Alzheimer’s that received the highest score after an evaluation from 250 multi-sector leaders at the 2017 XPRIZE Visioneers Summit. The proposal will now move forward as a top priority for an intended 2018 XPRIZE global competition to globally crowdsource the search for a biotarget to predict and prevent Alzheimer’s.

A multi-disciplinary team of Alzheimer’s, science, and medical experts worked towards this goal, seeing it as a way to jumpstart innovation and overcome low funding, slow progress, and little public urgency on the topic. Led by Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Age Wave and George Vradenburg, who has dedicated his life, money and brilliance to finding the cure for Alzheimer’s, this team of experts and dedicated organizations delivered compelling evidence of why this disease is one of the great global challenges that demands fresh solutions.

The XPRIZE decision could potentially revolutionize the Alzheimer’s field by helping to find a novel biotarget, which would unleash a new era of therapeutic development. So here’s how the XPRIZE model works: the organization offers a multi-million-dollar prize to any team that can solve a problem identified as a “very significant, audacious, grand challenge, facing humanity;” in this case, predicting and preventing Alzheimer’s. This model has achieved breakthrough results in other areas, including private-sector space flight, genome sequencing, and health tech. Now XPRIZE has decided to bring this model to Alzheimer’s, recognizing that the disease affects more than 40 million worldwide and – in the US alone – will cost $20 trillion through 2050.

Making the case for an XPRIZE in Alzheimer’s, Dychtwald and Vradenburg underscore what we learn from The Leisure Seeker: that above all, the burden of care is often the true source of suffering for this dreaded disease. Ella, Helen Mirren’s character, is herself dying of cancer, and she has decided that she cannot leave the care of her husband to the children. And, as in Still Alice, we are especially sad about the loss of a great mind – a literature professor who delights in lecturing about Hemingway to everyone, from his students to his family to diner waitresses and gas station attendants.

And, like Still Alice, it is in the visuals of The Leisure Seeker that we are presented with the tragedy, horrors, and sadness of Alzheimer’s that are only possible through the cinema medium. A mind losing all recognition and loss of control of all – yes, all – bodily functions, and, perhaps most of all, the downward plummeting of any ability to function daily. The hard reality of 21st-century longevity emerges with even greater clarity as we learn in the course of the story that Helen Mirren’s character is herself losing control. So it is in the metaphoric journey from Massachusetts to the Florida Keys in search of Professor John’s beloved Hemingway home that we finally see in their last love embrace they choose death, together. But, it is in their choosing – the dignity of their decision making while still possible – that the viewer is most acutely aware of the underbelly of 21st-century longevity.

And yet, there is hope that we can still transform longevity from decades beset by illness and conditions of aging to a healthier and more active aging where each of us, in our different ways, enable our functional ability, as the WHO has now declared. And this hope is now evident in the XPRIZE, where six months of hard work have advanced a new, groundbreaking plan to take on Alzheimer’s. Our War Against Alzheimer’s is underway, but each year without a cure and prevention means more suffering for individuals around the globe; and, as we see in The Leisure Seeker, the sufferers are the family and loved ones, at least as much as the victim himself.

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