Like most Americans, I have enormous admiration for President Ronald Reagan. The world witnessed his courage and conviction when he confronted communism at the Brandenburg Gate.
I also admire the 40th President for the bravery he showed after leaving office when he publicly shared his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. In so doing, he transformed the global Alzheimer’s conversation from a whisper to a roar.
One of our greatest leaders helped tear down walls and tear down the stigma of Alzheimer’s-related dementia.
Ironically, it was President Reagan who 10 years earlier had proclaimed November to be National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. Today, more than 5 million Americans – and 44 million people worldwide – are living with the condition, and a new case develops in the United States every 68 seconds, according to alzheimers.net.
More than two decades after President Reagan disclosed his diagnosis, the biopharmaceutical industry may be moving closer to breakthroughs that will allow us to bid farewell to the long goodbye.
Currently, five Alzheimer’s medications are on the market to treat the symptoms of the disease, and these therapies improve memory and cognition in about half of the people who take them, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. But thanks to biotechnology, a new research frontier is being blazed. Scientists are testing dozens of therapeutics with the potential to stop Alzheimer’s before it starts. If approved, these medicines could allow people with a genetic predisposition or other risk factors to take preventative measures at a young age to forestall Alzheimer’s progression.
Biogen, Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca are among the companies conducting late-stage clinical trials to test the efficacy of novel new treatment approaches. Advances in biotechnology allow them to take aim at beta amyloid plaques that clump together in the brain. Plaques are especially insidious in a neurological context; they make it harder to process thoughts and access memories. While a cardiologist can operate on a person’s heart to unclog a plaque-filled artery, there is no bypass or angioplasty that can clear out beta amyloid plaques that build up between millions of microscopic nerve cells in the brain.
Time will tell, but new therapies that prevent the accumulation of plaque and that lower beta-amyloid levels could represent the breakthroughs that we’ve been waiting for in our search for an Alzheimer’s cure. Biotech companies are also working on new diagnostics that would use biomarkers to aid in early detection and diagnosis of the condition, so the right people can receive early treatment once preventative therapies receive FDA approval.
Until then, the cost of Alzheimer’s – both financial and human – will compound as more Americans live longer. The disease threatens to put an unsustainable burden on our health care system. By 2050, the Alzheimer’s Association projects that the United States will spend $1.1 trillion to care for people with the disease. That’s twice what our government spends annually to fund our national defense.
The human toll is equally steep. Those who’ve taken care of a family member with Alzheimer’s can attest to the heart-wrenching stress and emotional pain caused by watching a loved one’s brain slowly fail them. President Reagan understood this all too well. In his poignant open letter to the American people, he wrote, “I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience,” before adding, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”
The commitment of the biopharmaceutical industry to cure this affliction offers fresh hope that there may be brighter days ahead in our national fight against Alzheimer’s disease.