JoAnn Wooding is staring intently at the clear liquid dripping from a dark brown IV bag into her husband Peter’s arm. “Please be the drug, please be the drug,” she says. Married for more than 50 years, the Woodings are among the more than 5 million Americans who are facing Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most devastating diagnoses today.
But instead of accepting the slow descent into memory loss, confusion and dementia, Peter–who has the disease–could be among the first to successfully stop that decline from happening.
Peter, 77, is one of the 2,700 people around the world who are expected to volunteer to test what researchers believe could be the first drug to halt Alzheimer’s. Two-thirds of the volunteers will receive the drug, and one-third will get a placebo. They won’t know which one they received until they have participated for 18 months.
While there are genes that contribute to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, for most people, age is the biggest risk factor for the disease. The human brain is remarkably resilient, but only up to a point. With time, connections that normally call up a memory or help remind people where they are start to get weaker. The first symptoms might be as innocuous as forgetting where you left your phone or missing an appointment. In most cases, the first memories to slip away are more recent ones. Slowly, sophisticated tasks such as organizing a trip, paying bills or driving to familiar places become more challenging. Important birthdays and milestones that you have celebrated your entire life start to slip away, and eventually you stop recognizing your loved ones.
Currently, 1 in 10 people in the U.S. over age 65 has Alzheimer’s. By 2050, without an effective treatment, 16 million could be affected by the disease. Worldwide, about 50 million people have dementia, most of it due to Alzheimer’s, and that number doubles every 20 years.
The memory-robbing brain disorder has proved vexingly hard to treat. Dr. Alois Alzheimer first described the condition in 1906, but in the more than 100 years since, scientists have not been able to develop any effective treatments.