Changing the Future of All Minds

Is there hope?” they ask me. For themselves. For their moms, dads, husbands, and wives.

My answer: absolutely yes.

And I don’t mean that in the you-should-never-give-up-hope sense. I’m saying that there’s now legitimate reason to be optimistic. Not about curing or preventing Alzheimer’s. That also may come in the not-too-distant future, but what I’m talking about is the sea change in the way we are viewing the disease. After decades of study and numerous setbacks, we now have a firmer grasp of how the disease disrupts the brain. That has led to potential Alzheimer’s treatments, which in turn means that Alzheimer’s patients may now face a course of interventions similar to those with certain types of cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, and HIV/AIDS.

In other words, like those diseases, we may be moving toward a model in which Alzheimer’s may not be curable, but it is treatable.

That means that someone diagnosed with AD might soon be able to live a long, symptom-free life, given the right treatment. I’ve selected some of the latest, most promising trials and studies for this chapter to show you where the field is heading. Keep in mind, there will be many more by the time you read this book.

As you can see from our overview of the latest AD research, there are many promising new drugs and therapies emerging. We can now identify people like Jamie who are at risk, thanks to the emergence of genetic science. We may now be able to talk about treating Alzheimer’s with disease-modifying drugs, of which we hope BAN2401 may be the first.

Thanks to the efforts of many, from major organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association to individual advocates like Jamie, we are now seeing the kind of interest, support, and funding that is critical to scientific progress. The announcement in July 2018 that a group of philanthropists, including Bill Gates, have created a thirty million dollar accelerate fund to support the development of new Alzheimer’s diagnostics is another important and welcome step in that direction.

These are all huge developments in the field. But let’s not stop there. I think we can now begin to strategize about a future without Alzheimer’s disease.

We know the changes occur decades before the onset of symptoms. Researchers like me speculate that interceding before an individual becomes symptomatic would be the optimal approach. We are trying to prove that early intervention will work. How early and what forms would that take? Let me paint you a scenario.

Imagine a day when we can take a drop of blood or a cheek swab from an infant and look at DNA to identify the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease many years later.

Imagine in young and middle adulthood, we can vaccinate against the development of Alzheimer’s, as we now do for mumps and polio.

Imagine in late adulthood we can prescribe medications that prevent the onset of the disease altogether.

We would save millions of lives and trillions of dollars.

If you think this is purely wishful thinking, you should know that everything I have just mentioned is being investigated. It might take years or even decades before this becomes a reality, but we are working on it. At the moment, we are losing millions of people to Alzheimer’s, and we spend a huge amount of money (as well as blood, sweat, and tears) caring for them.

As I’ve said, we are now entering a period when newly diagnosed Alzheimer’s patients may have a wide array of options for effectively treating and managing the disease. But look a little farther down the road, and I can easily envision a future in which there are no more memory-care assisted-living facilities because there are no more dementia sufferers to inhabit them. This is the goal.

In the meantime, the message here is hope and nonpassive engagement, hope that we will soon make massive medical progress that might one-day end Alzheimer’s or at least make a significant reduction or delay in the disease. Active engagement is essential as a tool of empowerment. We know there is growing evidence that we can modify risk by making certain lifestyle changes, as seen in the large studies included in this book. Our challenge is trying to prove that these strategies to delay AD work at the individual level and to raise the funds and harness the enthusiasm, hard work, and sacrifice to make this dream a reality.

In life, we don’t get to pick our parents or our gene pool. But we are coming to an era that we can alter the footprint and impact of our genetic makeup. This growing field of research is called “epigenetics.” It is a field of study where scientists determine how the environment (stress, sleep, food, exercise, medications, and so forth) impacts genes. We cannot manipulate genes yet, but someday we might be able to turn off genes associated with AD risk altogether. If we win that fight, we would be living in a world where Alzheimer’s disease would be a rarely seen plague of the past, as unfamiliar to a future society as smallpox or polio is to ours.

Yes, a world without Alzheimer’s disease. A world without millions living in the shadows. Wouldn’t that be a slice of heaven on earth?

Taken from Fighting for My Life by Jamie Tyrone and Marwan Sabbagh, MD Copyright © 2019. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson.

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