Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Time to Wage a 'War Against Alzheimer's'?

Our Community Engagement Associate, Cynthia Koch, recently brought this USA Today column to our attention. In it, a former journalist argues that it's time to truly mobilize to find a "cure" for Alzheimer's. There is more research going into the disease, but it isn't keeping pace with the epidemic that's begun to sweep across the globe as people live longer but not necessarily in better health.

One reason Alzheimer's is growing is because we now are no longer dying (as quickly, at least) of the diseases that used to take us in our 60s and 70s, when brain-related diseases like Alzheimer's and vascular dementia typically start to take root. Instead, we live, often for decades, with chronic illnesses. That too takes a tremendous toll on our families and our health care system.

Cancer is a mysterious, natural occurence in which cells begin to mutate -- sometimes because of conditions within the body that were preventable, and other times despite all odds. There's genetics, environment and lifestyles that all play a factor. And, sometimes, it's just fate.

So far, the only "cure" for cancer is reducing known risks as early as possible and early detection so that treatments stand the best chance of working. While the best hope for an Alzheimer's "cure" now rests in a vaccine given to adults in their 20s and 30s - well before the characteristic plaques and tangles start to form -- we have a long way to go.

During a recent Sharp Healthcare conference on Living with Chronic Disease, a medical doctor with Sharp Hospice noted that the primary reason we now live two decades longer, on average, than our ancestors 100 years ago is immunizations. Small pox, polio, even some virulent strains of influenza no longer take a heavy toll on our population because of vaccinations most of us receive throughout childhood and our adult life.

Could a vaccine for Alzheimer's be added to the list of innoculations we receive during our lifetime? Maybe. No doubt not everyone will comply. But perhaps those who lived for decades with a loved one that suffered from the disease, not to mention the number of pop culture icons sure to go public with their own travails as they move into the final phases of their careers and lives (think country musician Glen Campbell, former Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt and others forced into early retirement) will convince future generations to get the shot.

In the meantime, we can all try to join the chorus calling for more financial attention to this devastating disease.  Make sure the officials we elect to help us actually do. After all, they too are - or will - personally tangle with dementia in one way or another.

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