Then & Now: A Look at How Far We’ve Come in Alzheimer’s Research and Understanding

By Howard Fillit, MD, Executive Director & Chief Science Officer

As a medical student in the 1970s, I studied hundreds of diseases impacting the heart, the brain and the body. But there’s one disease whose name never  crossed my lips or the lips of my professors: Alzheimer’s.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world where Alzheimer’s—a form of dementia that plagues one in six women over 65 and one in three individuals over  the age of 85—is not a part of the public consciousness.

That shift in awareness, alone, is worth applauding. In just over 35 years, we have given a voice to those suffering from this devastating disease and begun the  process of finding a cure. We have also seen government funding for Alzheimer’s research jump from $675,000 in 1976 to $504 million in 2013.

The release last week of the 2014 National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease is a reminder of just how far we’ve come. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a comprehensive and well-thought-out plan to tackle Alzheimer’s.

The newest National Plan covers everything from basic research to drug discovery, caregiver infrastructure and caregiver assistance. It is undoubtedly an important foundation for combating the Alzheimer’s epidemic—one expected to affect 16 million Americans by 2050—developed by a bright and well-chosen team of experts in the field.

But though the plan represents great progress, Alzheimer’s drug discovery research is still woefully underfunded. The $504 million that that the National Institute of Health spent on Alzheimer’s research in 2013 pales in comparison to the  $6 billion it spent on cancer research. And only a small portion of that amount goes to drug discovery research, the kind of investigation that actually leads to new drugs. This despite the fact that Alzheimer’s is the only top 10 cause of death with no drug that can cure it or slow its progression, and the only major chronic disease for which deaths are increasing rapidly as society ages.

We are, nevertheless, at an exciting juncture in Alzheimer’s drug discovery research. Thirty years after we began studying the biology of Alzheimer’s, we have a strong research portfolio to translate into the development of new drugs.  As a leading funder of some of the most promising drug development research in the world, the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation is poised to play a major role in the discovery of drugs to treat and cure Alzheimer’s.

Today, we have a plan. Now, it’s time to find some effective and safe drugs that can slow down—and even prevent—Alzheimer’s.