Dr. Maria Carrillo, chief science officer for the Alzheimer's Association, gave an inspiring talk on the latest advances in the fight against Alzheimer's at William Blair's annual Women's Leadership Forum. Held on June 17, more than 200 women attended the event.
The event brings together influential women to share their experiences and encourages thoughtful discussion about important contemporary social issues. This year's theme—Understanding Alzheimer's—is especially important to women since statistically they are most affected by the disease. More than 60% of those caring for Alzheimer's patients are women and two-thirds of Americans living with Alzheimer's are women.
"We believe a conversation about Alzheimer's is essential and very timely given the growing impact the disease is having on individuals, families, and our country as a whole," John Ettelson, William Blair president and CEO, said in his introductory remarks.
The work of Carrillo and her many colleagues is making inroads toward a cure for Alzheimer's, a malady tied to misshapen blood proteins that cause cognitive decline. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.
Carrillo said recent advances in research, a creation of support networks, and the formation of private-public partnerships are all positive developments. But much more is needed to fight the disease as the epidemic continues to grow.
"Over 5.4 million Americans are living with this disease. About 200,000 of those are under 65," Carrillo, a neuroscientist who serves on the boards of several national and world health organizations, told the group. "It costs $236 billion, mostly in caring for people with the disease," she said referring to 2016 U.S. costs. "That number will grow to $1.1 trillion in today's dollars in 2050 if we don't find a way to slow or stop the progression."
Federal government funds are helping. In response to rising concerns, the federal budget for 2016 boosted annual funding by $350 million for Alzheimer's research, a 60% increase, bringing the total to $936 million. In June 2016, the Senate appropriations subcommittee approved a bill for an additional $400 million for research.
The Alzheimer's Association is the largest nonprofit funder of Alzheimer's research in the world and ranks third overall behind the National Institutes of Health in Washington and the Chinese government's Ministry of Health.
"We want to fund innovative ideas and think about timeless projects because this is going to be the future of accelerated research," Carrillo said.
Risk factors rise for Alzheimer's with age, traumatic brain injury, a family history of the disease, and a comprised cardiovascular system tied to smoking and such conditions as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension—risks that, unlike genetic factors, can be managed, Carrillo noted.
Since the vascular system is what feeds and "washes" the brain, an unhealthy cardiovascular system increases one's risk of Alzheimer's up to threefold, Carrillo said.
"Regular physical activity and management of cardiovascular risk factors have been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and may reduce the risk of dementia," Carrillo said, quoting the association's official position on Alzheimer's prevention. "Healthy diet and lifelong learning, cognitive training may also reduce the risk of cognitive decline," she added.
Carrillo cited promising research aimed at being able to measure brain proteins long before a person shows sign of dementia. With development of the right therapies or drugs to reduce those proteins, brain decline including the onset of dementia might be slowed or stopped, she said.
"If Alzheimer's disease can be delayed by even just five years, we will be saving 5.7 million people from developing Alzheimer's disease by 2050 and America would save an incredible amount of money," Carrillo told the group.