(Bloomberg View) — The fight against Alzheimer’s disease tallied a small victory last week, when two new drugs were found that possibly slow its relentless attack on brain cells. But the search for a cure isn’t moving nearly quickly enough.
Alzheimer’s kills about 100,000 Americans every year and undermines the final years of life for some 5 million more. Forgetfulness and disorientation are the first symptoms, soon followed by trouble communicating, cooking and getting dressed. By the end, victims are often unable to recognize friends and family, eat or walk on their own, or understand anything happening around them.
Care for the afflicted accounts for almost a fifth of Medicare and Medicaid spending; by 2030, that’s expected to reach almost half a trillion dollars a year. Alone among the most widespread diseases, Alzheimer’s has no proven treatment, let alone a cure. Drugs exist to mitigate symptoms once they appear, by stimulating mental activity for patients whose brain cells have already deteriorated, but no new ones have been approved since 2003.
Why has this disease proved so invulnerable to modern medicine? Bad luck may be part of it, as it is with all medical research, and the sheer difficulty of solving the puzzles involved. Researchers are still unclear about what causes the deterioration in mental function: Is it the amyloid beta plaque that builds up between nerve cells in the brain? Or is it the tau protein that tangles the insides of those cells? Or could these effects be symptoms of some other underlying disease process? And what causes some people to get the disease and not others? (One hint: It’s not simply heredity.)