In 1901, a woman named Auguste Deter was taken to a medical asylum in Frankfurt, Germany. Auguste was delusional, suffering from sleep disorder and progressive confusion—often unable to remember even the most basic details of her life.
Her doctor, a man named Alois, had no treatments to offer Auguste. But he watched over her and precisely documented the development of her unusual disease from the day they met. Auguste’s symptoms progressively worsened and she passed away in April 1906. Alois performed an autopsy and found unusual plaques and tangles in her brain—structures he had never seen before.
The harsh reality is that if Auguste Deter had been alive today, modern medicine could offer her no more help than Alois did 114 years ago.
Alois was, in fact, Dr. Alois Alzheimer, and Auguste was the first person in the world to be diagnosed with what is now called Alzheimer's disease.
Since 1901, patient care has emerged from a medical wilderness. Medical science has discovered antibiotics that can protect us from infections, developed statins that can help control heart disease and designed treatments to effectively combat a wide range of cancers, giving people hope where there was none before.
But we've made almost no progress in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Of the top 10 causes of death in the world, Alzheimer's is the only one that we cannot prevent, cure or even slow down. And perhaps even more alarming is the fact that for anyone who hopes to live past the age of 85, the chances of getting Alzheimer's are approaching 50 percent.
Today, Alzheimer's affects 44 million people worldwide. By 2050, that number is expected to grow to 135 million people. If nothing changes between now and then, not a single person will survive it.
In addition to the tremendous emotional strain placed on patients, their families and caregivers, Alzheimer’s comes with enormous financial hardship as well.
Looking at the disease from a financial perspective, Alzheimer's is the most expensive disease in America with the costs of care currently exceeding $220 billion annually. As the baby boom generation ages that number is expected to grow significantly. And without a cure, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that patient care costs will rise to $1.1 trillion by 2050.
It is not a mystery why we understand less about Alzheimer’s than other diseases. The simple truth is we've invested far less money into Alzheimer’s research. While there are many, sometimes frustrating reasons for the lack of resources, chief among them is a profound lack of awareness.
At Southwestern Medical Foundation, we believe the time has come for each of us to become aware that everyone with a brain is at risk. There is much work to be done, but one thing should be kept in mind above all else: Alzheimer's is a disease, and as a disease, it can be cured.