June 24, 2018
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Alzheimer’s Research

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and two scientists specializing in aging are calling for a new Alzheimer’s disease research program that could lead to a breakthrough by 2020. While the attention is needed, their approach may be faulty.

In an Oct. 28 article in The New York Times, they urged increasing federal spending for Alzheimer’s research to $2 billion and the appointment of what would amount to a federal czar for an anti-Alzheimer’s strategy, as provided in a pending bill in Congress.

Their proposal includes a startling summary of the threat: Dementia afflicts half of people over age 85, the fastest-growing segment of the American population. Alzheimer’s will strike 13.5 million Americans by 2050, up from 5 million today. The United States spends $172 billion a year to care for people with Alzheimer’s, and that figure will zoom cumulatively to $2 trillion in 2020 and $20 trillion in 2050.

The plea merits attention because of Justice O’Connor’s record as a public figure and the eminence of co-author Dr. Stanley Prusiner of the University of California, who received the 1997 Nobel Prize in medicine. The third author is Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist and gerontologist.

Still, the article raises questions. First, it may stir false hopes among the millions of Alzheimer’s victims, the millions more who face an increasing chance of getting the disease, and the additional millions of caregivers. Scientists investigating the cause of such a mysterious disease as Alzheimer’s are reluctant to set a deadline of success in finding a cure or preventive. On one wall at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor hangs a quote from Albert Einstein: “If we knew what we were doing it would not be called research.”

Second, the article may oversimplify the Alzheimer’s puzzle. The authors compare it to the wiping out of polio, which is an infectious disease, with a vaccine that took many years to develop. Alzheimer’s is a different problem. As one investigator puts it, “We know what happens … but not why or what starts it.”

Finally, the article seems to suggest that Congress, reacting to pressure by groups or individuals, is a better alternative than the National Institutes of Health and its Institute for Aging for allocating federal research funds. That practice could lead to a hodgepodge of efforts determined not by available research opportunities and their likelihood of success but by the loudness of competing advocacy groups.

A “war” on a mysterious disease like Alzheimer’s would have about as much chance of victory as our long war against cancer, which has shown some success but remains far from eradicating the disease. Congress would do better to leave health research to the experts.

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