Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
The other night I watched the movie Limitless. I thought it was a typical heart-pounding thriller with a touch of fantasy—in this case about a guy who discovers a drug that turns him into a genius. I thought the plot was moving toward the inevitable crash he would suffer when his supply ran out (as happened to everyone else in the movie whose supply ran out).
Then came the twist at the very end that made me laugh out loud. OMG, what Pretty Woman was to prostitutes, Limitless is to drug addicts and the whole drug industry.
If you’re smart enough, it says, you can make the perfect brain drug; you can take the last dose of the perfect drug to a lab and figure out how to reverse engineer and reproduce it; and you can figure out how to tweak it downwards in a perfectly safe manner (all within very short time periods); then you can wean yourself from a phenomenally addictive drug; and finally, you can train your brain to retain all the benefits of said drug once you have weaned yourself off it.
HA HA HA HA HA.
I think the whole problem I have with the drug industry is that, except in this extreme pharmacofantasy, it is additive rather than subtractive. You add one drug to treat a condition, then you add another to deal with the side effects of the first drug, then you add an nth drug to deal with the side effects of the combination of all the previous drugs.
Why not start with subtraction?
What are we injesting that we should cut out? Sugar? Preservatives? Smoke? Alcohol? Pesticides?
How often/much are we eating that we should cut back? Are we inhibiting certain enzymes—such as the anti-aging SIRT1—that only activate during fasting hours?
Maybe less is more?
Let’s start by removing the offending substances first, because once you start adding, it’s not you who benefit. It’s the industry that initially did have your brain in mind but now needs you to need them more and more.
The Alzheimer’s Research Paradigm
If you’ve every studied philosophy of science, you’ll recognize that current research in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease is battling paradigms. The funny thing is, the Alzheimer’s field hasn’t even reached the level of robust theory, yet there is strife in the ranks of researchers fighting over the direction inquiry should take:
“Kill the amyloid plaque!”
“No, viva le beta amyloid!”
“Forget amyloid. It takes tau to tangle.”
“Ha! The biomarker emperor has no clothes!”
“Wait. Isn’t it all about insulin resistance?”
“Nix all the above. Just get quality sleep, and you’ll be fine.”
If you think this is funny, these basic statistics will sober you up:
* As of 2010, there are 5.4 million people in the US with Alzheimer’s
* Almost half the people over 85 have Alzheimer’s
* When the baby boomers come of Alzheimer’s age, the costs of care for this disease alone will cripple Medicare and Medicaid
* Federal funding for research into a cure is dropping fast
* YOU will be paying for either your own care or for that of a loved one if a cure is not found. And YOU will either be grossly neglected when this disease hits you, or you will die the slow death of stress from caregiving for someone else.
Bottom line: research into Alzheimer’s—its cause(s), treatment, and cure—is alarmingly urgent and terribly underfunded.
There are plenty of people out there who believe we shouldn’t put money into research at all, because so far nothing has been found to stay the course of “Alzheimer’s” dementia, and the whole drug industry is just a ploy to line the pockets of the pharmaceutical fat cats. If you’re in that group, you can stop reading this now. If, however, you would really like to see your Mom or Dad or Yourself able to have a meaningful conversation with your loved ones and know whom you’re talking to—hopefully for the rest of your life—read on, because the question isn’t whether or not to research. The question is where do we put our research dollars?
Not a simple answer when you consider that the reigning paradigm for Alzheimer’s research is serious question.
Let me explain with recent findings from my own readings:
A couple weeks ago I attended a Cure Alzheimer’s Fund webinar presented by Dr. Rudy Tanzi (of Massachusetts General’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease) on Alzheimer’s research and drug development.
Beta Amyloid: Clues From Our Genes
Dr. Tanzi’s group is in the “clues from our genes” pool (looking at the genes as a starting point rather than, say, looking at diet first). The dominant belief in this pool up until recently is that beta amyloid plaque accumulation in the brain, followed always by tau tangles, are the two main biomarkers for Alzheimer’s Disease. That is, where there is Alzheimer’s, there is an overabundance of beta amyloid plaque and destruction caused by tau in the brain. Also, a higher load of plaque correlates with a higher degree of dementia (see slide from webinar). Plus, as this accumulation progresses and moves to different parts of the brain, there is a parallel manifestation of symptoms.
The connection seems pretty obvious. And Dr. Tanzi certainly has the credentials: back in the 80’s when he was studying Down’s Syndrome, he realized they had isolated the gene responsible for amyloid “plaque” deposits in the brain, and—given that all Down’s Syndrome sufferers end up with Alzheimer’s—thought to make a link between this gene and other cases of Alzheimer’s. From there it was one success after another, with Dr. Tanzi participating in the discovery of three of the four known gene mutations causing early-onset Alzheimer’s (these are the genes that guarantee you will get Alzheimer’s). Granted, early-onset AD accounts for only 5% of Alzheimer’s cases, but it does give weight to the conviction that Alzheimer’s has a genetic link. More recent studies looking at family history suggest that up to 80% of Alzheimer’s cases are genetically influenced (see slide from Tanzi’s presentation).
The presentation is convincing enough until you start reading the commentary in the field and start learning that current direction of research into the causes of Alzheimer’s is highly questioned.
Researchers coming on the scene today, for example, would argue that the plaque theory is circular reasoning. You can’t say that plaque leads to Alzheimer’s if you first define Alzheimer’s as “dementia with plaque.” And when your theory states that plaque accumulation leads to Alzheimer’s, the automatic null hypothesis is that where there is plaque (in copious amounts) you will always find dementia, and when plaque is cleared, dementia will go away.
But this has not born out. It is now known that “roughly one-third of all elderly adults have such plaques in their brains yet function normally.” It has also been proven that the elimination of beta amyloid plaque (achieved by the “Alzheimer’s vaccine”) does not cure dementia.
Thus the paradigm shake-up. Why continue with the biomarker research when the facts don’t bear an airtight connection? Is the “clues from our genes” group too heavily invested financially and psychologically in this line of research (as some suggest) to give it up as dead?
Dr. Tanzi responds to these fears in his recent presentation. He didn’t use the word per se, but nuance was the main come-back. All theories undergo refinement, and this plaque-causes-dementia theory is no exception. Looking at the genes may have lead to wrong conclusions in the past, but there are still some pretty interesting clues to follow going forward.
Here is a crude rendition of the protein-level pathology in Alzheimer’s:
Beta amyloid (Aβ) is cut off from its precursor protein; Aβ links to other ab in small clusters; Aβ kills nerve synapses; Aβ accumulates into plaques
For the past twenty years, research has focused on improving the symptoms of dementia by eliminating the final clusters of beta amyloid (plaques). Looking at the little diagram above, different drugs targeted the beta amyloid at different points on the linear progression toward plaque: Flurizan targeted the process that snipped the Aβ off its precursor protein; Alzemed tried to block the aggregation of Aβ; Dimebon was designed to protect the neurons from Aβ; one drug successfully immunized the brain against Aβ (resulting in clearance of plaque from the brain, inflammation in the brain, and progressive dementia); and finally, drugs were developed (Aricept and Namenda) to act at the symptomatic level.
None has had any significant effect on the brain’s function in memory tests.
Tanzi’s response? Perhaps the reason drug trials fail is that the potency of the drug is off—either too weak or too strong—and funding for a subsequent trial is cut off. Or perhaps researchers need to stare at the diagram a little longer and find out whether beta amyloid needs to be left to do some mission, then cleared before it wreaks havoc on the synapses.
Which is exactly what happened with Dr. Tanzi—a little stroll through the lab, a light-bulb moment, and Tanzi discovers that beta amyloid kills bacteria and yeast like nobody’s business. Beta amyloid is a good guy? The plaques themselves are just “a field of bullets” left over from some major battle?
Definitely worth an investigation. A new direction.
To Fund Or Not to Fund
So it turns out that looking at clues from the genes is not a paralyzing avenue of research after all. Is the paradigm really dead, or just needing refinement? In the new direction of Alzheimer’s research, Dr. Tanzi’s findings have lead to a more recent drug (PBT2) that takes the “antibiotic” role of beta amyloid into account as it tries to clear its toxic leftovers. Do we pull the plug on funding just when the story is getting really interesting?
The competition out there is fierce. You would think from some of the stinging accusations aimed at the “old school” research that funding for groups such as Tanzi’s should be questioned. Yet, as the webinar pointed out, “the vast majority of our knowledge about AD and AD drug discovery has been based on studies of the four known AD genes over the past two decades.” That’s old school success.
On the down side, “about 70% of AD genetics is unexplained by the four known AD genes.” On the further down side, it’s going to take A LOT of funding to find the genetic culprits for the rest of Alzheimer’s cases. And genetics is still only one of several approaches to studying this disease! (Besides, paradigms don’t die until a better one supersedes it, and there is no airtight theory out there yet).
Do we put all our eggs in one basket? What if there aren’t enough eggs to spread around to the different baskets?
Frankly, I don’t know the answer to this question.
There are a couple good reasons I think the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund group is worth supporting, though. One reason is the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund website itself. The Internet has plenty of faults, but it also has the advantage of open criticism. If you look at the comments sections of one of the papers put out by Tanzi’s group on the Alzheimer’s Forum, you’ll see an open debate. It’s free collaboration. It’s crowdsourcing at its best. I think it multiplies the value of your funding dollar.
Another reason is that I’ve suspected my own mother’s caseStay tuned for a post on this topic to be of possible bacterial/fungal origin and am dying to see what this group finds in their new line of research. The only thing I fear is the psychological barrier to this new approach.
A Taboo Research Project?
To be specific: the two agents being considered by Tanzi’s group as possible aggressors in the beta amyloid battle are Chlamydia and Candida Albicans. But looking at Candida Albicans as a possible cause of anything is TABOO in mainstream medicine. Just browse the comments section of a recent article in the New York Times about Candida Albicans, and you’ll see what I mean.
Will Tanzi’s group have the courage to fight all the enemies of research at the same time: tainted motives (the desire for personal glory), psychological entrapment (continuing in a line of research simply because it’s been going on for so long), and mainstream opinion about what is acceptable research (we do not look at X)?
I guess it’s going to take a lot of money to find out. Which brings us back to the basket issue.
Do we have to duplicate Alzheimer’s research at the Federal and State levels? The state of Texas, for example (being one of the top three states that will go broke paying for Alzheimer’s care in the future), is spreading its research egg money into several baskets:
* Prevention and Brain Health
* Disease Management
Why repeat this with every state, plus private groups on the side? Is there a way to get more collaboration between research groups? The well of needed funding is infinitely deep, so why are we digging multiple wells?
I guess part of the answer is that individual motivation for research (even if it is for personal glory) is the strongest kind you can find, and therefore the best engine for finding a cure. And likewise, education plus individual conviction will drive donations. There is certainly enough information available at one’s fingertips to give no one who is interested in a cure an excuse to sit on the sidelines!
So what will you do?
Because where there is a will, there will be a way to end the increasingly long goodbye.
For further reference:
Beta-Amyloid: An Antibiotic? (with a slew of interesting comments)
Alzheimer’s Brain Tangles Offer Clue To Worsening
Alzheimer’s Disease: No End to Dementia
New Potential Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease Detected
Alzheimer’s Scary Link to Diabetes
Follow the Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Ride journal
An video report on several intriguing theories of Alzheimer’s.
On the way back from the errand, I was no longer me but a dim-witten twenty-something boy, and the SUV was now a semi truck. I climbed into the truck and found that it was in such a tight spot that it would be nearly impossible to get the monster out and down the alley onto the street. Nevertheless, I managed.
From there on, driving home was a brink-of-disaster experience. Sometimes the truck would jacknife and tilt over and I would dangle from the window and the truck would almost fall on top of me. But it would always right itself just in time to not kill me.
I kind of lost my way home, and at one point drove the truck into a military building. Somehow the folks there mistook me for a war hero and ordered a police escort to get me home. I was too dim-witted to correct them.
I drove home never quite feeling in control, yet chortling the whole way—the cops behind me scratching their heads as they swerved to follow. I arrived home and STILL no one would act on the fact that I was not OK.
When I awoke this morning I had to laugh at my mind’s lack of subtlety. That definitely sums up life right now. This caregiving business feels like you are always on the cusp of something that could kill but ends up leaving you alive. Barely.
I especially got a kick out of the war hero thing—a commentary on everyone always saying “You two sure are wonderful. You are going to get huge rewards in Heaven!”Merrily merrily merrily merrily
Life is but a dream.
The first thing you have to know about Mom is that she is the biggest sweetheart on the planet. She has always said “yes” to anyone who asked her for a favor or a meal or a ride or even cash. We used to berate her over some of these decisions. “Mom, you’re just enabling them to go get drunk,” or whatever. We’d rather keep our boundaries intact. Keep safe. Not Mom. She’d rather “do onto others” as Jesus wanted her to do–and let Jesus take care of punishment if the recipient abused the gift.
With that in mind, it puzzles me that these days, the word most frequently pulled out of her tiny residual vocabulary (5-10 words at present) is the word “no.”
“Mom, shall we get up?”
“Mom, isn’t this music pretty?”
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
Here’s the curious part. Her body language still says “yes.” So why the verbal “no”?
I’m thinking that this knee-jerk negation is her last recourse to individuality. Having lost most of what makes her a person, she is resorting to negation as a way to distinguish herself from others.
Think about it. “Yes” blends us into other people. It’s a unifying word. It accepts. It serves. It hugs and becomes one with the other.
“No” on the other hand, puts up a wall between the self and the other. It says, I am me and you are you and it’s going to stop there.
It’s Mom’s only way, I believe, to retain a feeling of self.
And that revelation changes how I look at the world. You wonder why some people just can’t play nice in the world arena; why they have to say “no” to constructive engagement; why they have to strap bombs around themselves and “no” themselves and other people into oblivion.
Perhaps it’s because those people feel that a “yes” will blend them into the will of the other–a will that is unacceptable to their idea of a healthy self. A ”no,” they feel, is the only way they’ll be seen.
Do you see what I’m saying? The ego’s boundaries collapse under yes. “No” is the last bastion of the tormented ego.
Funny how that commercial for Pristiq antidepressant gets it wrong. The last thing in the world we Alzheimer's victims (on both ends) need is a big old hand winding us up even more! Yikes! A better image would be seeing that key spin in the opposite direction, letting that purple-clad lady relax completely. Now there’s a pill I'd buy!
It’s ads like that that take me back to Princess Bride and Wesley’s pronouncement: "Life is pain, highness! Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something." A lot of people have to put up with a lot of pain. It's not just us.
So perspective helps some.
Here are some other things that help:
Yesterday I finished reading Still Alice. I think the title is meant to be a loaded question. Can I, after losing all memory of others and self, still be considered to be myself? Am I still “me” if I don’t have a clue what that me is or was?
The fictional book answers the question affirmatively.
I found myself examining my perceptions of Mom–who obviously no longer knows herself–and thinking the conclusion was absolutely true. I still recognize Mom in this shell of a person. She still has the same mannerisms, exudes the same kind affection, displays the same funny reactions. She’s still Mom down to the core.
But not so much with Dad–a victim of Parkinson’s. It seems I recognize him less and less. But then, I suppose I’m holding a higher standard of “self” to Dad, giving that I’m assuming he’s more “there” than mom. If I were to strip him down to mannerisms alone, I would probably find him to be his old self too. It’s a tricky question.
At the very end of the novel, Alice has a moment of lucidy and says, “I miss myself.”
That statement struck me to the core. You know why? Because I miss being me too! There is this incredible longing inside me to be “more” or “better” or “fuller” or something. I fall way short of the me I want to be, and I long for (or miss) that. Yet I still want to be treated as though I were fully “me” even though I don’t meet my own standard for myself.
Why not, then, treat the Alzheimer’s victim as though they were fully themselves, regardless of how short they fall from the perfect version of that self?
Ultimately, our longing is for acceptance, love, safety. Let’s just make a pact to offer it unconditionally to each other regardless of where we are on this journey toward the perfect self.
Alzheimer’s and the Ego: the Power of No
All my life I considered myself an introvert, a private person, ungifted in the art of validating people.
In my early forties (a couple minutes ago), I bought a small restaurant, and all this changed. I grew by leaps and bounds in my fascination with people of all stripes and in my ability to dig beneath the surface and find the gold within. I grew in my ability to remember names, know faces, discover connections, and find new ways to validate people. I got high on it—on my ability to validate. It validated me in return.
Then one day this abruptly ended. I crashed. I had been working seven-day weeks for two and a half years, and my body and mind couldn’t take it anymore. The first scary sign of stress was when some of the music I played every day at the cafe lost its familiarity. I was evidently unable to learn new music. Then it was faces. New ones wouldn’t stick, and old but infrequent ones were a struggle to recall. I was filled with doubt when in conversation: what had we talked about the previous time? Did they just come from Europe, or were they going to Europe? I couldn’t remember.
Stress fried my brain, and my validation skills went with it. Nothing, but nothing hurt as much as having a newly-made friend appear and me not know who they were for ten or twenty seconds. The eager look on their face faded instantly, and nothing could bring it back. No amount of remembering in a few seconds would make up for my initial inability to validate them. I died a little bit every time it happened.
I wanted to resign from life. Retreat. Embrace my pre-cafe, introverted self. I wanted to be given a chance to explain (there is no such thing). I cried, prayed angrily, tried to bargain with God.
How do you love people when the principal organ of love—the brain—is shot?
I realized eventually that I was mourning my ego, not my lost ability to validate people—because I hadn’t lost the ability. I’d only lost the ability to do so in a way that would make me look good. There were and are plenty of opportunities to extend kindness and touch people’s souls even if we can’t immediately recall a face. It just takes an awful lot of something to give up the craving for reciprocity.This also showed me that validating was not my natural gift. To meet someone for whom it is, you must meet Jan Petersen. This afternoon I watched the video Jan’s Story: Love and Early-Onset Alzheimer’s again and re-discovered a true hero. Even with severe dementia, Jan knows how to seize each day and touch each person she meets. Jan’s is both a heart-wrenching and heart-warming story. Many people go through life mentally intact yet unable to see the goodness that surrounds them. Then you meet someone like Jan whose indomitable spirit sheds significance on everything and everyone she sees—regardless of her inability to name things.
The validation breakdown begins with us who think Jan’s story is nothing but a tragedy. But I tell you, if I could pick one trait to take with me on the dark road into oblivion, I’d pick Jan’s ability to validate without requirement; to love without strings attached; to milk each moment and each encounter.
That is the validation breakthrough!
Here are four more of my current heros—people with early onset Alzheimer’s who put themselves in the crosshairs of the stigma-tazers so they can help the rest of us see a little bit of the road ahead:
I saw an old friend yesterday and we caught each other up on our families. I told him I recently lost my brother-in-law to brain cancer. He said he was about to lose his sister to the same. Then he shared how his sister—who has a month or two left to live and is tired as can be—blurted out a couple days ago that “There are just so many fun things left to do.” No self-pity; no giving up despite the shortness of time. Her mind is winning over her dying brain.
I am deeply humbled by this woman’s attitude. I want to think like her—to take what’s left in the glass and drink it! Yet here I am with probably years left to live, claiming to be getting the upper hand on this Alzheimer’s caregiving business, but feeling devoid of creative ideas for living, for laughing, for loving.
I need help making a list. I have to have a bunch of small stuff, because the big stuff like going to a play or out to dinner or hang gliding don’t work with both parents. I just want some ideas for bringing laughter into our home.
To start, here are some little things that make Mom laugh:
Dancing for her with a feather boa.
Episodes of “I Love Lucy.”
Singing raucous songs loudly.
Pretending to eat her up.
Laughing babies (like this youtube one):
Here are some things that make Dad laugh:
Pretending to eat him up.
Episodes of The Colbert Report.
Mom when she’s in a funny mood.
And here are some new things I’m going to try:
Wear a fake mustache to the dinner table.
Spray whipped cream on Dad’s nose.
Put a fake snake or tarantula in the bathroom before Dad goes in.
Find a DVD of Victor Borge (like this youtube):
I’d love to hear your ideas, and I’ll leave you with this fun project: make a muppet like the one in the introductory picture above to add some fun to your Alzheimer’s caregiving.
Wait, here’s another idea: make these funky glasses. They crack everybody up!
This weekend I picked up and devoured Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—a fascinating collection of clinical tales of neurological aberrations accompanied by philosophical and social observations regarding the people affected by these aberrations.
One of the first things that hit me as I read these tales was remorse over my inadequate caregiving of Dad in the past three years. I mean, the very first case in the book reminded me very much of Dad—his inability to tell the difference between his foot and his shoe; to interpret a picture or the furniture layout of any room; to distinguish between his body and a chair across the room. But whereas Dr. Sacks’ response to these aberrations was fascination, interest, and kindness, mine was a struggle against exasperation, irritability, and impatience.
Why couldn’t I marvel at (instead shake my head at) Dad’s description of his back pain as an imaginary horizontal tube about a foot in front of his abdomen? Why did I only nod in shame when doctors asked, “Is your father’s mentation… always… this… shot?” instead of pushing the observation beyond the superficial to the interesting? If I’d only read this book or studied neurology before taking care of Dad! I feel like a parent looking back on her inadequate parenting skills and feeling remorse over the damage it may have caused.
Dr. Sacks laments the tendency of neurology to focus on “deficits,” leaving the soul out of the doctor’s concern. This echoed my own feelings expressed in the post Regarding Disabilities and Questionnaires. We are so concerned in medicine and social services to define what’s wrong with the patient that we miss seeing the desperate starvation in front of our eyes: the individual’s need for affirmation—for having someone notice what’s right with them. Thus, the simplest of all medicines or disability benefits is left completely out of the picture in professional delineation of care: making use of what’s left of the damaged self to make positive human connections.
From his chapter, “The President’s Speech,” I learned one way to use what’s left of Mom’s mind to connect more effectively with her. Like the patients in the aphasiac ward, Mom too has lost all language while retaining extraordinary function in the area of intonation, body language, inflection, and facial expression. I’ve always sensed that she could “read our body language.” Dr. Sacks’ confirmation of this ability has made me more aware of how I use those meta-verbal cues in communicating with Mom. The smile I get in response is more valuable than any drug-induced ability to tell what date it is.
One of the most fascinating passages in Dr. Sack’s book tells of a man with Tourett’s who, when given Haldol in the smallest of doses, ceased to exhibit the excesses of Tourett’s and became disastrously dulled—both physically and mentally—causing him as much distress as had his Tourett’s dysfunction. It took three months of counseling and “preparation for healing” before the man was again willing to try a tiny dose of Haldol. As Dr. Sacks put it, “The effects of Haldol here were miraculous—but only became so when a miracle was allowed.” Scandalous! Was Dr. Sacks milking the placebo effect for all its worth? I’ve always wondered why doctors don’t deliberately incorporate the placebo effect into the real medication to multiply its effect. Now I know: some do (what’s wrong with spending three months preparing a patient for healing?).
It’s easy to see why Dr. Sacks is considered an exentric. His methods go beyond the cut and dry. They touch the soul. I think I like this.
As near as I can figure, these are the five stages of elder caregiving that correspond to the Kubler-Ross states of grief:
1. DELUSION. This is where you have boundless energy and think two lives are possible: one with you as caregiver, and one with you as successful entrepreneur.
2. FRUSTRATION. This is where you realize you have been delusional and have to make a choice between the two yous. The results are tress and guilt. Stress because your intentions are still lofty, but your body is getting tired. And guilt because you know you have to give up your own agenda, but want to keep it.
3. ANGER. This stage starts with resentment. You may start thinking part of what’s going on is on purpose—that your loved one is intentionally “pretending” some of the sickness. Or you think they’re not trying hard enough to cooperate with your care. You are in constant correction mode here, and getting angrier because your [barely] loved one keeps repeating the same frustrating behaviors (see Elder Rage).
4. DESPAIR. You finally get it that it’s not their fault. You accept that the disease is controlling your loved one and getting worse. You stop blaming them, and instead heap all the blame on yourself because you still think you ought to gain control over this caregiving business but can’t. Along with despair you have increased guilt and exhaustion.
5. RELEASE. In this stage you finally give up control. You realize you cannot do this entirely by yourself. You delegate care (maybe for a day or two of day care, maybe institutionalization). The result is considerably less stress; even joy; and certainly wisdom.
A curious thing happened to me on my way to finding the cure for Alzheimer’s all on my own: I gained more respect for drug research companies, for neurologists, for folks who are obsessed with theories and practically live in their labs trying to prove their theories. More specifically, I gained greater respect for drug companies that fail colossally, then dust themselves off and try again.
After Eli Lilly revealed that their latest trials of the Alzheimer’s drug semagacestat resulted in greater dementia in their subjects, the response from the public was overwhelmingly angry. Adding to Lilly’s revelation, a recent report on Alzheimer’s drug company stocks by NeuroInvestment painted a bleak picture of the effectiveness of Alzheimer’s drug development across the board, giving the impression that research in the field is pretty much a crap shoot.
If you follow the very well-attended Alzheimer’s Reading Room online, you will see an interesting reaction to these reports. Richard Taylor (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) is one of many who feel crushed and devalued by the repeated failures of Alzheimer’s drug trials. Imagine trying to live with hope, then seeing over and over again that no matter how much money and time is spent on Alzheimer’s research, reality refuses to sustain any hope.
No matter the good intentions, Alzheimer’s research seems a recipe for failure.
This week I got a wee taste of what things might look like from the inside of these drug companies. For the past few years, I’ve been building a theory of Alzheimer’s of my own and keeping my eyes peeled for evidence that would support my suspicions. More recently, I decided to take a serious look at my hunch and see if a) I could gather legitimate scientific data that would shed light on my “theory,” and, b) see if this data had any kind of flow to it—if it had a “storyboard.”
My motives were twofold: I like to discover truths; and I very much want to avoid getting Alzheimer’s (like my mother). Curiosity and Fear fed my research. When I finally thought I had an airtight storyboard, excitement at the implications led to action: I shot off my “storyboard” to a leading researcher in the field.
Sobriety set in the next day. I took another look at what I’d written, then re-checked my sources and found not just one, but several really weak extrapolations in my thinking, and one particularly week substantiation of the evidence. I should have waited. I should have spent another eight weeks (I know, right?) researching before putting it out there and risking embarrassment.
But think about it: the possibility of being right on something so devastatingly urgent will make people take risks. And I’m not talking only about the drug companies; people signing up for drug trials are equally taking risks, knowing that the outcome is not certain at all. When you consider that it takes years and years and years to move inches in the direction of a safe and effective drug release (such as the six years it took to find how a fine-tuned alternate to semagacestat About a decade ago, Dr. Greengard and his postdocoral students made their first discovery on the path to finding the new protein. They got a hint that certain types of pharmaceuticals might block beta amyloid. So they did an extensive screen of pharmaceuticals that met their criteria and found that one of them, Gleevec, worked. It completely stopped beta amyloid production. That was exciting, until Dr. Greengard discovered that Gleevec was pumped out of the brain. Still, he found that if he infused Gleevec directly into the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s genes, beta amyloid went away. ‘We spent the next six years or so trying to figure out how Gleevec worked’ on gamma secretase, Dr. Greengard said. He knew, though, that he was on to something important.functioned in mice), the urgency for a cure leads all sides to gamble on a shortcut. And we’re not interested in companies that aim to keep the Alzheimer’s victim home “three months longer.” We want a cure.
Colossal goals risk colossal failures.
Can you just imagine what went through the minds and guts of Lilly’s leaders when they realized they’d failed? When they had to go out there and tell their shareholders of their failure?
“Well, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is that our drug was more effective than the placebo…”
Of course drug companies are going to be motivated by the excitement of financial gain. But they’re also going to be motivated by the fear of getting it wrong. They know what failure can do to their reputations and their ability to fund further research.
Today, Indystar.com published a very thoughtful article on Eli Lilly’s semagacestat trial failure. You won’t have to wonder what it was like behind the scenes at Eli Lilly—the article gives you a pretty well-rounded look. You also won’t have to wonder what someone’s response would be after being given the drug and having it backfire. From the wife of one participant:
“I just hope the researchers dig their heels in and keep trying to find a cure,” Dianne said. “That’s the important thing.”
I know there’s the whole layer of marketing that plants diseases into people’s conciousness so drug companies can make money off their fears. For this there is a solution: TiVo (and the advice of a good doctor).
But we shouldn’t assume that everyone researching Alzheimer’s has only one goal in mind—to get into our pockets with random, pointless medications. Any rational company would avoid this particular field: the risk of failure is pretty much guaranteed.
I hope we can learn from Eli Lilly and other Alzheimer’s research companies to risk failure; to work even harder; to join forces in finding a cure.
We are continually hearing that Medicare is going to go bankrupt by mid-century thanks to the skyrocketing costs of an aging population in need of prescription drugs and dementia care.
Medicare Part D costs to the government in 2010 were $62 billion and are projected to climb to $150 billion by 2019. And Medicare costs for Alzheimer’s care will increase more than 600 percent, from $88 billion today to $627 billion in 2050.
Here is a double-barreled solution to the costs of Medicare Part D and Alzheimer’s care: replace prescription drugs with equally effective placebos and employ mildly-cognitively-impaired individuals as healthcare enhancement agents.
This is not a joke. Here is why this would work and save the federal government billions:
Placebos—if delivered properly—could potentially be more effective and considerably less costly than many current prescription drugs.
Here is an example of an experiment with placebos for a “purely physical ailment”:
One group was simply put on a waiting list; researchers know that some patients get better just because they sign up for a trial. Another group received placebo treatment from a clinician who declined to engage in small talk. Volunteers in the third group got the same sham treatment from a clinician who asked them questions about symptoms, outlined the causes of [their ailment], and displayed optimism about their condition.
Not surprisingly, the health of those in the third group improved most. In fact, just by participating in the trial, volunteers in this high-interaction group got as much relief as did people taking the two leading prescription drugs for IBS. And the benefits of their bogus treatment persisted for weeks afterward, contrary to the belief—widespread in the pharmaceutical industry—that the placebo response is short-lived.
It has been found that placebos can sometimes work even better than the leading prescription drug for any given disease, with certain factors contributing to their effectiveness:
Yellow pills make the most effective antidepressants, like little doses of pharmaceutical sunshine. Red pills can give you a more stimulating kick. Wake up, Neo. The color green reduces anxiety, adding more chill to the pill. White tablets—particularly those labeled “antacid”—are superior for soothing ulcers, even when they contain nothing but lactose. More is better, scientists say. Placebos taken four times a day deliver greater relief than those taken twice daily. Branding matters. Placebos stamped or packaged with widely recognized trademarks are more effective than “generic” placebos. Clever names can add a placebo boost to the physiological punch in real drugs. Viagra implies both vitality and an unstoppable Niagara of sexy.
If you’re thinking that the suggestion of using placebos is unethical, check out this study:
“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” says Kaptchuk. “We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills.”
The participants were monitored for three weeks and, at the end of the trial, 59% of the patients given the placebo reported ample symptom improvement as compared to 35% of the control group. Furthermore, participants who took the placebo had rates of improvement about equal to the effects of the most powerful IBS drugs.
Deception is unethical. Honesty is not. If there is a joke it’s in the current medical practice of prescribing expensive drugs that are sold without the most important ingredient that made them effective in the trials—the same ingredient that makes placebos effective.
As we would all imagine, the most important factor in the effectiveness of placebos is the doctor’s bedside manner. That is, the presence of compassion in the treatment of an ailment.
Regarding a Cognitively Impaired Workforce
The double-barreled solution in employing people with mild dementia as healthcare enhancement agents is that we would save on prescription drugs, hospital recovery times, and also be assigning purpose to people with mild cognitive impairment. Folks whose initial downward slope in the aging process is a bit early are not an “unproductive force in the economy.” There is richness of intellect, creativity, and compassion that could be tapped rather than stomped on per our current dementia stigmatization.
There was a time when people with physical disabilities couldn’t get jobs. But we’ve come a long way in learning of the tremendous contribution that the disabled can give, and have accommodated the workplace for such individuals with ramps and wider doorways and elevators in order to reap this benefit. Why not do the same for MCI individuals? Why are we instead discarding this tremendous resource?
In reading blogs of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, one of the biggest stresses for both the sufferer and the government is issuance of social security disability benefits. Why not offer employment rather than cash benefits? If compassion at the bedside of a sick person dramatically speeds the healing process, think of the savings accrued by employing love & joy-givers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes?
In his book The Gift of Pain, Dr. Brand lists the factors that enhance pain and prolong the healing process: fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, boredom, helplessness. He then describes how perfectly suited many institutions are in promoting these feelings with their sterile settings, uncommunicative doctors and nurses, boring surroundings (and now that nurses spend all their time at computer terminals per our new streamlining guidelines, these factors are further compounded). Healthcare institutions could cut their costs by employing people to:
Design and paint interesting scenes on hospital ceilings
Play instruments in institutional corridors (not just harps, please!)
Make dolls for nursing home patients
Read aloud to patients, or simply visit
Reupholster institutional furniture with fun fabrics
Take certified dogs into institutions for cheery visits
The savings in dollars would be compounded all around, and the savings in dignity for all healthcare users a welcome change for our society.
Like the title of this blog says, there are things to be learned from all kinds of dementias. Here is a particularly astounding thing to learn: severe autism does not necessarily mean the sufferer is mentally retarded. This video will shock you into looking beyond the outward appearance of those who cannot communicate and into the soul.
Sometimes I wonder how much like this girl my mother is. How much does she really know about what’s going on around her?
AC6BTV7AQCKPToday I stopped at a light and to my right was a truck hauling what looked like a small, complete house all wrapped in white plastic. I wonder if it was one of these “Granny Pods” that are becoming a hit all over the country. I don’t know what people are bellyaching about. I think these are a great idea! It would be like playing house and you wouldn’t have to put up with any teenagers blaring music from their room as you would if you lived in the real house. Think I’ll order one with a Japanese soaking tub when I get around to needing one.
It's just one doctor after another these days…
We barely got to the clinic and we were both already exhausted: Dad from getting dressed, fed, squeezed into a jacket, compressed into the car, ejected from the car, and hung in a wheelchair. Me from doing all that to him without the cooperation of his muscles. We didn’t even want to go into the clinic. I told Dad that what we should do is write a children's book about aging and how fun it is. Dad laughed. I said we could describe how you get to ride around in a cool scooter—even inside the house. And how you get to have cool leopard print all over your skin without paying a cent for it. And how if you get skin cancer on your ear, you have to have a chunk cut off (like Dad) and then you can fit right in with the folks at Rivendell or Lothlorien.
I really see some potential there.
Might as well take this big old lemon and make lemonade.
(P.S. If you have any more ideas for the book, let me know)
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