Hope at Last in Sight for Alzheimer's Treatment

By George-Hyslop, Peter St | Canadian Speeches, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Hope at Last in Sight for Alzheimer's Treatment


George-Hyslop, Peter St, Canadian Speeches


Hope is at last in sight for treatment of Alzheimer's disease, the fourth leading cause of death. One of the most agonizing diseases, as stressful for caring family members as it is for sufferers, Alzheimer's is a degenerative and ultimately fatal disease that now affects 300,000 Canadians. But research at the cutting edge of biotechnology now holds promise that treatment may be available within a few years. Speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto, May 12.

One hundred years ago the most significant causes of human morbidity and mortality were infectious disease. With the advent of public hygiene, vaccination, and anti-microbrials, the threat posed by infection has diminished considerably, although not totally. Their place, however, was taken by increased risks from malignancies and cardiovascular disease. However, during the past two or three decades, some small progress has been made into these diseases, thus some cancers are now treatable and the death rate from myocardial infarction seems to be falling.

Again, though, as one dragon is slain another raises its perfidious head. The latest dragon is a constellation of diseases, many of which appear to be akin to what one expects from simple wear and tear. They include diseases like osteoarthritis, osteoporois, cataracts, and most alarming of all, a series of ultimately fatal degenerative diseases of the nervous system, including motor neuron disease, Parkinson disease, and perhaps the epitome of all these diseases of aging -- Alzheimer's disease.

It is upon the latter that I will focus in the next few minutes. To date, effective treatments do not exist for most of these diseases, a fact largely stemming from our incomplete understanding of the mechanisms by which these diseases occur. What I will show you in the next few minutes, though, is that hope is on the horizon, and that modern science can address these diseases. In particular, I will show you how the University of Toronto, in collaboration with the Alzheimer's Association of Ontario, has already made significant inroads.

Before I do that, let me just put the matter into perspective. As you may know, Alzheimer's disease is a disease of the human central nervous system, which manifests in late adult life with a series of progressive impairments in memory and in cognition. It's more than just loss of memory, it's loss of ability to think, to reason, to discuss, to emote; in other words, those higher intellectual functions which differentiate us from other animals.

Occasional lapses of memory or difficulty remembering the name of a colleague are normal, and not a sign of Alzheimer's. Initially at least, the other neurological functions, such as the ability to walk, breath, etc., are intact. But eventually Alzheimer's disease does progress to the point where a patient is unable to take care of himself, becomes incontinent and then bed-ridden, and ultimately dies. The important thing to note is that Alzheimer's disease is a debilitating and fatal disease which kills the patient dead, as dead as the nastiest of cancers or AIDS does.

The scourge of this disease is threefold. First, it robs the patient of the qualities we most treasure -- our intellectual abilities. Second, it does so at the end of life. Frequently, therefore, it robs a man or woman of the chance to enjoy the fruit of a lifetime of hard work, the joys of grandchildren, etc.. Thus, this disease is not only a murderer, but it is also a thief. Finally, because it renders the patient totally dependent upon others, it also imposes tremendous burdens upon relatives who become the total caregivers.

Now, that description may strike you as a bit of hyperbole. Let me firmly disabuse of you that here and now, in two ways.

First, Alzheimer's disease is the fourth leading cause of death in Western countries. There are at least 300,000 Canadians with Alzheimer's disease right now. There are three million Americans, etc.

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