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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

McCallum: Treating Alzheimer's

Shortly before my mother passed away in a nursing home she leaned toward me and said confidentially, “I’m going to have a baby, you know.” She was pushing ninety-nine and was never one to crack jokes or share secrets. Unfazed, I chalked it up to just another day in the locked memory care unit where she resided. “That’s great Mom,” I replied, and redirected her attention to the small dog sitting on her lap.Surrounded by the dazed and confused, Mom ultimately finished out her life there without truly understanding that she was finishing out her life. Unlike in the movies, there were no heartfelt goodbyes because, by then, speech had eluded her.

My mother was one of 5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer’s – so many that every sixty-seven seconds someone in this country develops the disease that erases a person over time and for which there is no cure. With 47 million people worldwide living with some form of dementia, the epidemic of Alzheimer’s is a time bomb that has science racing for a magic bullet.

Even the entertainment industry recognizes heightened public awareness of the looming catastrophe. Recent Hollywood films have depicted the destruction that dementia wreaks on once productive lives. This year, the film Still Alice won the Oscar for Best Actress while past films examined the staggering mental declines of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and British author and philosopher Iris Murdoch. And a recent New York Times cover story detailed the resolve of a brilliant Cornell professor to terminate her life before the disease stole her mind.

So it’s no wonder that a new leading-edge therapy is causing a sizzle in the world of dementia research. Aducanumab, an experimental drug that has reduced the buildup of brain plaque in early stage Alzheimer’s sufferers and improved their cognition, is poised to be a game changer if it advances from trials to treatment. In a research field littered with failures, a drug that could maintain brain function and stave off the horrors of losing one’s mind has investors lining up to buy stock in the biotech company that unveiled it. With so many false starts in the race for finding a pharmacological treatment for the Silver Tsunami that’s bearing down on an aging population, a success story is long overdue.

If aducanumab is part of that story, the possibility that it might help us hold on to what gray matter we’ve got and finish out our lives with dignity would be cause for Baby Boomers - and the rest of the world - to celebrate.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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