Holding on to Hope: The Race to Solve Dementia

by | Dementia, What We're Talking About

Dementia is one of the biggest and most baffling health challenges facing Australians.

“It’s the number one fear that older people have. More than any other disease … more than anything else.” said Professor Henry Brodaty of UNSW. 

There are few things more confronting than the thought we might lose our memories because they define us for ourselves and dementia is the thief that will take them from us.

Half a million Australians live with dementia and for the past two decades scientists have been working on drug treatments they hope will combat the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease.

In a recent and powerful episode of ABC TV’s Four Corners programme, Dr Norman Swan investigated this long and controversial search for an effective treatment based on the theory that the accumulation of a substance in the brain called amyloid is the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.  

Dr Swan examined whether the science is taking us in the right direction but also focussed on the growing knowledge that while we wait for a drug that works, there’s still a lot we can do to keep our brains in good shape.

“If we can give people another five years of quality life, that’s going to make a massive difference to people around the world. It’s going to make a massive difference to healthcare systems around the world as well.”  said one cognitive neurologist on the program. 

 “The drugs that we’re using should delay the onset of any cognitive impairment if the trial is successful,” said Australian neuropathologist Professor Colin Masters.  

But the scientific community is divided because it’s not at all clear that removing amyloid will slow the decline in thinking and memory. Dr Swan talks to world experts who worry that if this is the case, these drugs – which are in clinical trials around the world – could be doing more harm than good.

“I would not prescribe it for myself or anybody else in my family because of this lack of benefit and substantial risk of side effects,” claimed US Neurologist Professor Joel Perlmutter who sat on a US Food and Drug Administration advisory committee which looked at the evidence on one of these medications, aducanumab.  

The controversial debate has increased frustration amongst dementia patients and advocates who worry that too much hope has been placed in just one treatment option.  

Dr Swan’s investigation also looked at the evidence that lifestyle choices may help delay the onset of the disease while the world waits for a cure.

Watch ABC TV’s Four Corners programme here

Useful resources and support services

Dementia Australia: www.dementia.org.au

My Aged Care: www.myagedcare.gov.au

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