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Bleak Assessment: is the Pharmaceutical Industry “Giving Up” on Finding an Alzheimer’s Cure?

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Here in America we like to think the smart men and women in their lab coats, working in their well-equipped research labs, can tackle pretty much everything when it comes to our medical problems. After all, it seems to work that way in the movies! But this is real life, and while we love to celebrate the great strides medical science continues to make in preventing (and one day curing) deadly diseases like heart ailments and many types of cancer, the most frightening disease of all still remains stubbornly resistant to our scientific efforts. We just don’t seem any closer to a medical treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

That appears to be the conclusion from this sobering column that was just published on the Quartz website. Written by Quartz reporter Katherine Ellen Foley, this article is called, “Why the pharmaceutical industry is giving up the search for an Alzheimer’s cure.” Indeed, as Foley writes, there have been a series of recent clinical trials that have failed or otherwise proved disappointing in addressing the relentless progression of Alzheimer’s disease, the dementia that afflicts well over 5 million Americans. “This year,” Foley writes, “the total cost of caring for all of the people in the US with this disease is expected to reach $1 trillion—higher than it’s ever been before. And yet despite what has obviously become a crisis, there hasn’t been a new treatment for Alzheimer’s in over a decade.”

Frustration and Failure

Foley reports that, while there are some psychiatric drugs that may help dementia patients deal with their anxiety, there are still no drugs that do a good job of slowing memory loss, and the most recent of those to be approved – sold as Namenda – is 15 years old. During the past decade and a half, a Who’s Who of pharmaceutical giants have tried and failed to get new dementia drugs successfully through clinical trials: Eli Lilly, Axovant, Merck, Biogen, and Prana Biotech. Biomed colossus Pfizer, after facing a round of clinical setbacks, announced its decision last January to “drop out of the Alzheimer’s drug game entirely,” Foley writes.

What makes Alzheimer’s disease so fiendishly hard to attack? Writing in Quartz, Foley says that this type of dementia poses three enormous challenges for researchers. First, the disease typically shows no symptoms at all for years, even decades, and by the time symptoms manifest themselves the brain is already too damaged to treat. Second, there are presently “no good methods to tell if someone has the early, biological stages of the disease,” writes Foley. “At the moment, the only definitive diagnostic tools for Alzheimer’s detection are costly or painful” – so much so that they can’t be used for general screening.   This leads in turn to the third problem, which involves the difficulty of recruiting the right patients for clinical trials. “Healthy people,” says Foley, “have no incentive to enroll in these types of drug studies, and there’s no good way to identify people with risk for the disease, or even initial biological signs of the disease.” The result is a stalemate: “In essence, scientists currently have no way to study Alzheimer’s patients for long enough to test memory-loss prevention drugs.”

Focus on Early Detection

The Quartz article goes into long and interesting detail about the history of this little understood disease, and also about funding for Alzheimer’s research which got a huge shot in the arm when the Obama administration made it a national goal (with funding to match) to find a cure by 2025. But in spite of research spending which hit $1.4 billion in 2017 (and which will decline to about $837 million in 2018 according to the National Institutes of Health), there hasn’t been much progress on the drug front. That’s why researchers are starting to focus more closely on the challenge of early diagnosis. “In theory,” the Quartz article says, “the best way to treat Alzheimer’s disease would be to stop the brain-cell destruction before it starts. The problem is that during the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, people have no way of knowing that anything is wrong.”  Doctors are working to come up with blood tests or PET scans that can detect the presence of the plaque accumulations that are common inside the brains of those in dementia’s early stages. This approach is still in its infancy.

What about research into lifestyle changes – diet, exercise, socialization? This, too, appears promising, writes Foley (the National Academy of Sciences called one such report “inconclusive but encouraging”). As the Quartz analysis points out, though, it’s unlikely that big research dollars will flow into some of these non-pharmaceutical approaches. “Pharmaceutical companies still have the deepest pockets,” the article states. Even though clinical drug trials are terribly expensive, future drug sales typically make up for the up-front investment. Not so with lifestyle recommendations. “You can’t patent exercise or salmon-rich diets,” writes Foley. “Without the promise of a big payoff, it’s doubtful pharmaceutical companies will fund studies to explore whether and how these lifestyle interventions work.”

Plan for Any Eventuality

So what’s our advice here at AgingOptions? Is the picture all doom and gloom? Absolutely not. While a scientific breakthrough is always a possibility, the lifestyle changes most physicians advocate can only improve your quality of life, often without costing you an extra cent. But here’s our essential take-away: families simply have to do a better, more thorough job of planning for the future. This includes financial planning so you don’t run out of money. It includes planning your housing choices, so you can age in place as long as possible. You need to protect yourself legally so your wishes are honored. You need to prepare your medical plans both for the short term and long term. And on top of all that your family members – who may very likely become your primary caregivers – have got to be on the same page and know what will be expected of them. In short, you need an AgingOptions LifePlan, the only type of comprehensive retirement plan that helps you protect your assets, avoid becoming a burden to those you love, and escape the trap of unwanted and unplanned institutional care.

We urge you to bring your spouse and adult kids and join Rajiv Nagaich soon at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar so you can learn more. This could absolutely be the most important investment of a few hours of your time that you will ever make! Visit our Live Events page where you’ll find dates, times and locations of upcoming seminars – then register online for the event of your choice or call us for assistance. You’ll discover peace of mind like you ever thought possible, once you embrace the protective power of an AgingOptions LifePlan.

(originally reported at

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