Are Boomers Walking Off an Alzheimer's Cliff?

Alzheimer's disease is the only one of the top 10 causes of death in America that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed down once it begins. People live with the progressively debilitating dementia an average of about 10 years.

More than 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 each day, starting this year, according to the Generation Alzheimer's report of the Alzheimer's Association.

After 65, the risk of being struck by the disease doubles every five years, so almost half of people suffer from this disease by 85.

Alzheimer's has already claimed countless lives, including that of President Ronald Reagan. What this single disease will do in the next few decades boggles the mind with almost 10 million baby boomers expected to die with or from AD. This is one of the biggest predictable humanitarian catastrophes in the history of America.

The biggest aging group in history -- the baby boomers -- who have transformed our world in so many amazing ways, are about to "shoot themselves in the head" by being the principal supporters of the indiscriminate budget cutting mentality that pervades Washington today.

The boomers started to walk off the Alzheimer's disease cliff this year, a fact that will not only affect them and their families but destroy the fabric of health care and society for their children and grandchildren because the demented boomers themselves will be an unprecedented burden to health care and society.

There is much debate among researchers about the amyloid hypothesis. To clarify, the amyloid hypothesis states that Alzheimer's disease is caused by the buildup of a protein known as amyloid beta in the brain, hence the name.

But I think the story is much bigger than the controversy about the amyloid hypothesis. The actual story is: "The effort to balance the budget so that our children and grandchildren will have a brighter future will do the exact opposite."

Only effective treatment -- or prevention -- can reduce health care costs by preventing millions of boomers from living an average of 10 years with dementia and tripling costs from up to $200 billion to as much as $600 billion a year.

Why is this catastrophe so predictable? Because the National Institutes of Health's research budget has already declined and will likely continue to decline. Thus, as things stand now, this scenario is 100 percent predictable because, as some know, the pharmaceutical industry is divesting itself from this effort.

Here is how I see the disaster unfolding as we continue to struggle with the controversy about the amyloid hypothesis:

The principal treatment target of the past 20 years (amyloid) has been hit (meaning that some of the treatment actually succeeded in removing the amyloid from the brain of Alzheimer's patients).

The removal of amyloid has not changed the disease course.

There is not enough funding to expand the treatment and prevention efforts to include other targets and, after severe financial losses, the pharmaceutical industry is beginning to abandon the effort.

There are many promising treatment and prevention strategies that will not be investigated quickly enough to make any difference to the mass of boomers who have begun to succumb to Alzheimer's this year.

Alzheimer's: A Slow-Motion Train Wreck

The stunning thing about this whole "slow-motion train wreck" is that many of the boomers have seen their parents suffer and die with the disease yet seem unaware that: 1) their own risk (and their children's risk) of getting Alzheimer's is much higher; and 2) that the disease might not be just treatable but preventable.

Unlike the gay community that mobilized and, by raising an extraordinary amount of funding, made AIDS entirely treatable in less than 10 years, the boomer group is not only silent about Alzheimer's disease but seems to be pushing an agenda that amounts to signing their own death warrant.

I can only assume that there is either a pervasive lack of understanding of the fact that there is just as much hope with Alzheimer's as there was for AIDS, and/or, because Alzheimer's is a "mental" disease, the stigma associated with losing that which makes us human (brain function) is "gagging" this group from advocating for themselves -- as well as their children and society at large.

After all, the scientific community has in fact "hit the first AD target." In other words, amyloid has been removed by some treatments. Although at the time the amyloid target was chosen it was very promising, it has so far proved to be the wrong target.

In the battle with AIDS, there were wrong targets pursued, also. But funding was sufficient to pursue other targets that succeeded.

There are, similarly, many targets in Alzheimer's disease. They are not being pursued because of lack of funding. Meanwhile, the mass of boomers are starting their inexorable march off the Alzheimer's disease cliff like so many millions of lemmings.

Dr. George Bartzokis is a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute and the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.

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