Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Fresh hope in Alzheimer's breakthrough." What's the impact on Serious Medicine? What's the impact on fiscal concerns?

Barclay Crawford, writing for The Daily Telegraph of Sydney, reports on hope for a possible breakthrough for Alzheimer's Disease, headlined, "Fresh hope in Alzheimer's breakthrough": 

The researchers claim they have isolated the cause of the brain-wasting disease in the interaction between two proteins in an otherwise healthy brain cell.

The university team managed to stop the interaction happening in mice genetically engineered to develop the disease by injecting a special protein into their brain using special implants.

"We have shown we can prevent the development of Alzheimer's, and that's never been done before," Professor Jurgen Gotz, of the university's Brain and Mind Research Institute, said. "If we can prevent it developing, then there is hope we can find a cure." None of the mice who were treated died, suffered memory loss or had seizures.

That's certainly encouraging--at least for the mice. 

But in fact, there's significant ferment in the Alzheimer's Disease (AD) area; researchers at MIT are reporting progress; at the same time, medical scientists in Texas, part of the state-created Texas Alzheimer's Research Consortium, are also reporting gains.     And today's Los Angeles Times offers a good overview of current AD research.

So what does all this mean?   We must always be cautious, of course, about over-optimism.  But at minimum, these reports from around the world remind us that AD research is dynamic, and that discoveries could spill over into treatments for other diseases.  The MIT researchers, for example, hope that their findings could also be useful to those suffering from Huntington's Disease and Parkinson's Disease.

So surely we know this much: Trying to shape budget policy now, based on concerns of deficits decades down the road, is a non-starter.   That is, if we were to cure Alzheimer's, or even significantly push back its onset, we would have a whole new world of policy options when it comes to retirement and Medicare.   Moreover, if we could develop that AD cure here in the US, as opposed to somewhere else in the world, then that new anti-AD medicine will be a huge economic driver for the American economy.   As in, jobs, growth, and, yes, tax revenue. 

So if--and only if--we push forward on scientific and medical advance, charts such as this one below, from the Social Security Administration trustees, need not worry us too much: The red line below, for Medicare, will not look so threatening if we improve public health.   Medicare spending will barely cross six percent of GDP by 2030, so we've got decades to solve the problem before paying the piper becomes a really serious concern.  So we had better solve the problem.   That will be a lot of work, and we might have to make significant policy changes, but it’s worth the effort, because we are worth the effort.  

The bottom line: If we cure AD, a big chunk of our entitlement concerns will go away.  Just like that.  Technology is the closest thing we will ever get to a free lunch.  


  1. How to save more money: Stop ischemic and hemorhaggic stroke from ocurring. Failing that, figure out how to undo the neurological and brain damage that results. Stroke risk is a more pervasive risk among Baby Boomers than Alzheimer's, and will ultimately cost more money. Why? Public health stidies have found that this cohort continues to use illicit drugs that increase risk of stroke and heart attack, and other research has established that they are more physically debilitated by age 60 than their parents and grandparents were at that age. Alzheimer's is as scary as cancer to most people - hence it's sexy shorthand for the generational tsunami that's about to engulf Medicare - but it's stroke that's going to be the budget buster.

  2. No, it’s not stroke that will bust us financially. If we live long enough, and it seems we will, what will kill us is cancer or heart disease. The problem is we wont know it because we will have AD. It comes on and stays with us a very long time. Jim priority wise you are on target when you ask for its cure, especially now when we are so close.

    “A big chunk of our entitlement concerns WILL go away;” then we will have more money for TIAs and Strokes.
    If AD isn’t cured, we will be financially sucked dry!

    As you know, my family tree is loaded with AD. We live high into our 80s & young 90s; but most of my family never knew it because of “The Fog of Age.” My Dad lived to 87; CHF got him. But in his last 2 weeks, he experienced Dementia once. He said “Peter, I wasn’t myself yesterday, I was doting.” I inquired and he said it was like being in a dream and he couldn’t get out. Interesting!

    Thanks Jim for giving us your thoughts on the matter. I hope mine are helpful too.

  3. Kathy is the caregiver for her 82 year-old Dad who has Alzheimer's and lives with her. Her blog, offers positive ideas, tips and light-hearted (and sometimes downright funny) stories to share with caregivers about her Dad. She hopes it makes caregivers smile, if even for a moment.