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Health & Science Rundown: When Forgetting Isn't A Temporary Problem

(Courtesy C-SPAN)

There is, perhaps, a bit of irony that this week’s Health & Science Rundown begins with a video that has gone viral.

Get it? Viral? Science? Illness is caused by viruses and when they spread….OK.  You get it.

The video in question is one in which actor/writer/comedian Seth Rogangets serious in testimony before Congress about funding research for Alzheimer’s.  It was reported everywhere -- as were his somewhat snarky tweets to senators who left before his testimony.

Rogan’s comments were heartfelt and ring true for anyone remotely interested in dementia.  The sad fact is, we are so far away from understanding this disease that finding a cure seems impossible.  An article in the Huffington Post lays out both why we should care and why a solution is so far off.

We should care because a projected 13.8 billion people will suffer from some form of dementia by 2050. But even before we get to that point, the article says, the disease is projected to cost Medicare $189 billion by 2015.

And yet research into the disease is thwarted. Here, I will let the article’s author, Dr. Sam Gandy speak for himself:

“Any notion of conquering common forms of Alzheimer's within the foreseeable future is naïve. Recent estimates hold that the sequester has led to 25-30 percent reductions in the academic research workforce in just the past 5 years. Success is further stymied by the lengthy drug-testing process inherent in treating such slowly progressive diseases, and an unavoidable consequence of the long Alzheimer's drug-discovery process truncates the inventor's period of patent protection and market exclusivity, after which time, the drug faces generic competition. Companies and laboratories are pulling out of Alzheimer's because the odds are stacked against the chance that they will recoup their tremendous research investment. The newly recognized complexity of the disease is likely to hasten the exit of 'big pharma' (i.e., the large pharmaceutical companies).”

A lot of research about the disease and potential cures is done at Washington University right here in St. Louis. In fact, they head up all kinds of international studies on Alzheimer’s. They are getting closer to understanding the disease but understanding is a relative term.  Their latest announcement: They’ve identified three biomarkers that go through a shift as patients develop symptoms of dementia. The fact that they can see something physical happening as dementia progresses is amazing. This awareness means they could diagnose people with Alzheimer’s much earlier and potentially treat them sooner as well. If only treatment were available.

Washington University isn’t the only area university leading the research charge against dementia and Alzheimer’s.  Last month, Fox 2 featured a story about the Brain Bank at St. Louis University.

Unlike WUSTL, the Brain Bank studies Alzheimer's patients' brains after they’re dead. A word to those who are easily grossed out, the video in the story shows lots of brains (the kind that not even a zombie would want).

Like WUSTL, the Brain Bank is making advancements to help understand what triggers the disease. But treating it or curing it, those goals remain elusive.

Managing the disease

At least one place has figured out how to manage people who suffer from dementia. Gizmodo has this profile of a place in the Netherlands set up like a town for people with dementia. The patients who live there can go to restaurants, shop, get their hair done, cook and wander to their heart's content, all within the safe confines of this town. 

Setting up a world that normalizes life for those with Alzheimer’s helps decrease the anxiety that often comes with the disease. It also keeps the patients safe, cutting down the anxiety for those who care for dementia sufferers.

Actually, the toll Alzheimer’s takes on caregivers is another part of the story. The New York Times “Well” blog had a post that focused on the plight of one caregiver, Paul Divinigracia. He could be a stand-in for nearly anyone caring for a spouse or parent who has the disease.  And that’s not a small number of people:

“According to the data from Stanford University and the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 15 million people provide unpaid care for family members or friends with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The strain of the task has been shown in many studies to increase the risk of a variety of illnesses, and even death.”

I don’t want to end this week's rundown on such a down note.

So, I give you: Rabbits! Therapy rabbits, to be specific. St. Louis Public Radio’s Nancy Fowler reported the story for us right before Mardi Gras. So, not only can you read this excellent article and  see wonderful photographs of fluffy rabbits helping older people feel better, you can also see a rabbit in a Mardi Gras costume.

Jane Eyre was not pleased to be greeted at her Mardi Gras fitting by Blu, the tailor's dog.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
Jane Eyre was not pleased to be greeted at her Mardi Gras fitting by Blu, the tailor's dog.

Shula is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.