June 25, 2018
They watched helplessly as Alzheimer’s robbed their loved ones of memory and cognition. They’ve agonized over the slow progress toward a cure for a scourge that’s long defied treatment. They’re terrified the disease could someday come for them.
As one failed drug trial after the next has dashed hopes for a medical miracle, many healthy people haunted by the specter of Alzheimer’s are turning to research that suggests lifestyle changes - from fitness regimens and brain games to better diets and social interactions - might help stave off the disease or push back its onset.
“It’s very scary [knowing] that it could happen,” said Ann Whaley-Tobin, 68, of Canton, a retired schoolteacher whose mother died of Alzheimer’s. Whaley-Tobin bicycles, practices yoga, and tries to keep her mind active through reading and crossword puzzles.
“I’m going to do anything I can do to delay or prevent it,” she said.
For drug makers, developing the first Alzheimer’s therapy has long been seen as the great white whale: the toughest challenge and biggest opportunity. An estimated 5.7 million Americans, two-thirds of them women and the great majority over 65, live with the condition, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The cohort is projected to swell to 14 million by 2050, as the population ages. Today’s drugs treat symptoms but don’t alter the disease’s course.
More than a dozen seemingly promising experimental medicines have flopped in clinical trials over the past three decades. The latest failure came this month, when Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca scrapped their drug candidate, lanabecestate.
By contrast, some of the most encouraging Alzheimer’s news of late has come not from pharmaceutical labs but from studies that take a more holistic look at how to grow old while at risk of the disease.