Originally appeared in CNN.com and written by Kate Mulgrew. Ms. Mulgrew a stage, film and television actress who is best known for her TV role in “Star Trek: Voyager.” She is currently appearing in the NBC series “Mercy.”
After the Alzheimer’s came, my mother could not know how shadows fell across our once ebullient family: our solidarity fractured, our tempers flaring in furious incomprehension, hearts breaking in mute despair.
None of us knew how to watch this woman disappear, her features slowly masked with blankness, her supple body rigid and wooden, her absolute vividness obliterated by the heavy fog of her disease.
As those of us touched in some way by Alzheimer’s know too well, the emotional, social and economic burden of this disease is nearly unbearable:
• 5.3 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease; a new case develops every 70 seconds.
• One in eight people aged 65 and older has the disease, and the risk is even higher for those over 85.
• Today, 9.9 million people are caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s.
• Alzheimer’s and other dementias cost Medicare, Medicaid and businesses $148 billion annually, a number that will grow quickly and substantially as baby boomers reach age 65.
Prevention. Cure. Hope. These are words seldom associated with Alzheimer’s disease. But groundbreaking scientific research and an opportunity for powerful collaborations could lead to discovery of the ultimate cure for Alzheimer’s disease: its prevention.
This achievable goal adds “hope” to the vocabulary of Alzheimer’s disease and holds the promise that my children and yours will never suffer its hardship.
My son, Alec, is an artist like his late grandmother. His paintings are large and uncompromising, stunning in texture, original in design. He’s got the real thing. He’s got “it,” just as she had. But what if he also has something else, like the APOE-e4 gene, known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s? What if he is in line to inherit this devastating disease?
What I could barely endure happening to my mother, I know I could not possibly endure happening to my son.
My friend Dr. Karen Hsiao Ashe, an internationally renowned Alzheimer’s disease researcher at the University of Minnesota, has developed a research road map that calls for bringing together a group of the world’s foremost laboratory and clinical investigators in the field to make prevention a reality by 2020.
Karen is identifying the biological processes that occur in the earliest stages of the disease — long before symptoms appear — to develop cost-effective, widely available interventions.
Karen and her colleagues are homing in on a promising possibility: a pill containing the molecular compound that could block the chemical chain reaction in the brain that leads to Alzheimer’s.
So what’s the holdup? Well, money, of course, and attitude, perhaps.
According to Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association, “No other disease causes so much suffering, is so certainly fatal, affects so many and drives so much cost with so little spent to overcome it.“ Why is that? Johns names ignorance, age discrimination, stigma and denial as likely explanations.
My plea is deeply personal, but by 2050, Alzheimer’s will affect as many as 16 million Americans, and none of us will be able to deny the reality. We must fight mightily now to prevent the shadow of this disease from darkening the lives of our children and grandchildren.
We must invest today in research that will most swiftly lead to the ultimate cure: PREVENTION.