There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that, according to a report published in The Times of Israel, Israeli men now have the second longest life expectancy on earth, while women have the eight longest life expectancy. The bad news is that fully half of people who live to age 85 will get Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. One in eight will get it at age 65.
Sadly, with my family, this is a topic I know a lot about. Indeed, in my gene pool, if Nazis don’t kill us, we live a long time. This year one of my great aunts died at age 103. She was the lucky one – her head was still clear. But I have watched the slow torture of others in my family who went from being enormously creative contributors to society, to living a life of dependency and despair.
Alzheimer’s is the ultimate thief. Starting with the loss of short-term memory, it eventually robs people of the ability to remember their family members, best friends, where they live, and even who they are. Eventually they lose the ability to take care of basic bodily functions. Alzheimer’s steals freedom from brilliant minds, imprisoning bodies and brains in a state where eventually death comes almost as a relief. The emotional and physical toll on caring family members who must watch this deterioration of their loved ones, while eventually coming to be viewed as total strangers by those whom they love, is enormous.
The human costs of Alzheimer’s and dementia is compounded by the financial costs. Family members (usually daughters) often quit what they are doing to take care of their parents or other family members with Alzheimer’s – which in turn can cost them their own independence and careers. But for many, even family supports can’t do it all. Around-the-clock care becomes a necessity.
Today, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease. By 2050, up to 16 million Americans will be so afflicted. It is estimated that caring for people with Alzheimer’s will cost the United States an astounding 20 trillion dollars in today’s money over the next 40 years. The overwhelming majority of that will be paid by Medicare and Medicaid – costs which are unsustainable to a nation already in serious debt.
Under this backdrop, last week there was a remarkable gathering at the National Academy of Scientists in Washington. Under the auspices of the Israel-US Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) and others, an outstanding group of neuroscientists gathered to explore the future of science and medicine. The forum covered Alzheimer’s as well as many other medical challenges, such as autism and traumatic brain injury.
The BIRD Foundation’s mission is to stimulate, promote and support industrial R&D of mutual benefit to the US and Israel. Today, the BIRD Foundation enables any pair of companies, one Israeli- and one US-based, to apply jointly for government grants, as long as they can demonstrate the combined capabilities and infrastructure to define, develop, manufacture, sell and support an innovative product based on industrial R&D. It harnesses the power of government to enable the private sector to provide real solutions. However, its budget for medical science is much too small. Indeed, today there is a close security partnership between the United States and Israel. The entire world would benefit from both the medical advances and the cost savings in healthcare expenses that could be achieved through a similarly close partnership in medical science.
A part of the BIRD conference was a video announcement by Israeli President Shimon Peres of the new $1 million global BRAIN (Breakthrough Research and Innovation in Neurotechnology) Prize, which he inspired. The prize will be awarded by Israel Brain Technologies to an individual or team that can demonstrate an extraordinary breakthrough in brain technology which has global implications.
According to President Peres, brain research is the “next big frontier.” He’s right. America and Israel, with looming numbers of people living longer, urgently need to get a handle on how to prevent, cure or at least slow the advent of Alzheimer’s. Today another American gets Alzheimer’s almost every minute. As American baby boomers get older, and Israelis live longer, those numbers will only double. Current initiatives are a good start, but the numbers strongly suggest that much more dramatic investments in brain science, with clear performance-based goals, are needed now.