This past Monday I did a news search for “Alzheimer’s disease,” and in two-thirds of a second my search turned up approximately 581,000 results. And this was on Memorial Day, presumably a slow news day. The lead item, which appeared on Forbes’ website, came with an ungainly headline: “New Research Uncovers a Possible Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease That Is Both Surprising and Promising.” (In an earlier era, when space was limited, and editors were paid reasonably well to write sharp headlines, the title might have been “Research suggests possible cause of Alzheimer’s.”)
But what about the other 581,000 search results? Are we being buried under information that makes it harder for researchers and investors to gauge potential winners? In mid-May, the Boston Globe reported on the opening of a 43,000-square-foot “Foundational Neuroscience Center” in the heart of Cambridge’s biotechnology district. “There’s a group of people who don’t know about the Foundational Neuroscience Center, but they will,” Eric Karran, a founder of the neuroscience center told the Globe, sounding a bit like Donald Trump. “And we’re going to cure that terrible disease…. We will find drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and, when we do, that will be truly transformative,” Karran declared.
Charlie Baker, Massachusetts’ popular governor, highlighted his mother’s hereditary dementia during his 2014 campaign. “My mom knew this was coming all her life and she faced this head on,” a brother of the governor told the Globe. “There was no denial. There were times, certainly, when she was frustrated and angry, but who wouldn’t be?”
The New York Times in early May provided exhaustive coverage of the disease, which an estimated 5.4 million Americans have been diagnosed with. The early-onset version, which accounts for roughly 200,000 instances of the disease, can strike as early as the late forties. I experienced initial symptoms at 51.
Yet being relatively youthful has its benefits: My cohorts tend to be in overall good health, and daily vigorous exercise of at least 30 minutes is said to be the best means of slowing the disease’s advance.
The front end of the Baby Boom generation (defined as people born from 1946 to 1964) is swelling the legions who now have Alzheimer’s, a significant majority of them women. While many people can manage reasonably well in the early stages of the disease, all signs point toward a burdensome, if not ghastly, future—and not necessarily only for spouses. A remark that I heard at a conference last month has stayed with me. One young woman who was caring for a parent mentioned that the duty was a heavy burden on the daughter’s finances. The last thing I would want to leave my family with is a legacy of debt.