It is understandable that many of us deify the medical establishment – we are humbled, grateful and often scared of doctors and specialists in equal measure. We are in their hands, after all, when these vehicles we move around in called bodies ‘go wrong.’ I’ve always been one of those odd sorts that is comforted by going to see my physician, relaxing at the thought of a qualified individual helping to make things better; it’s a marvel to think of where we are in terms of general treatment in 2012, the medical community having progressed and found cures for so many ailments unthinkable one hundred years ago – spare a moment and think of what life would be like if Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming had not stumbled across and developed antibiotics, for instance.
It is also, without doubt, the tenacity of researchers and scientists that will continue to be our collective hope for the future, be it finding a cure or better treatment for HIV, Cancer or Alzheimer’s – just a few of the perennial bogeymen still defying human advancements. In the latter case, this degenerative brain disease has continued to evade an effective cure but routinely makes the scientific news with potential new advances. Over five million people in the United States, and one in fourteen people over the age of sixty-five in the UK are living with this terrifying illness (thirty-five million worldwide), which like other elusive diseases, needs far greater public and private support and funding.
One leading global specialist in the fight against Alzheimer’s, Dr. Michael Mullan of the Roskamp Institute, believes that more needs to be done with clinical trials, and funding is only part of it. Writing an article for the Herald Tribune recently, he outlined some of the challenges that he and his colleagues are facing: “For every clinical trial currently under way for Alzheimer’s disease, there are 100 cancer trials. This reflects several realities: It’s easier to conduct clinical trials in cancer patients: The FDA is more tolerant of side effects and there’s much more funding (private and government) available for cancer research than for Alzheimer’s disease research. Also, cancer trials tend to be much shorter than Alzheimer’s disease trials, so they are much less expensive.”
Dr. Mullan feels that in order for the medical community to continue to progress with Alzheimer’s trials, a more lateral, open-minded approach for alternative therapies needs to be in place in regards research; early detection methods must progress, and of course, funding needs to be increased. Interestingly the BBC has recently run several pieces on new early detection methods, including brain scans that might indicate later development of the disease (it’s currently believed that brain shrinkage can develop decades before symptoms occur).
Without greater emphasis placed on the aforementioned priorities, Dr. Mullan fears that the number of people suffering with Alzheimer’s will exponentially increase. And beyond the practicalities of disease treatment, there is also a need for greater societal understanding of dementia, and an increased empathy towards those afflicted. The hope is that with a more holistic approach and greater attention placed on finding a cure – from both the medical establishment and the public – we will soon be able to turn a corner on a very difficult and worrying disease.