In 2004, PBS aired a film about Alzheimer's disease.
The grim takeaway:
- It's incurable and deadly.
- With the aging of the U.S. population (especially by the outsized baby-boom generation) the number of cases is skyrocketing accordingly.
- The cost of this coming epidemic is destined to be financially ruinous, not only on an individual basis, but also as a public-health crisis nationwide.
That was then, in 2004. But the situation has grown only more dire, says an important new documentary, "Alzheimer's: Every Minute Counts," which airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST on PBS.
According to this program, there are now more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer's disease, with the number projected to soar by 55 percent by 2030, while future costs associated with it threaten to bankrupt Medicare, Medicaid and the life savings of millions of Americans.
"Alzheimer's: Every Minute Counts" was produced and directed by Elizabeth Arledge, who a dozen years ago produced the Emmy-winning "The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer's."
That report mainly focused on the human tragedy of a degenerative brain disease that sentences each victim to a progressive loss of memory and sense of self and, over time, an inability even to swallow and breathe.
For her new documentary, Arledge has taken a different tack.
"This is not another examination of the heartache," she explained recently from her Cambridge, Massachusetts, base as an independent filmmaker specializing in medicine and public policy. "Instead, it's more about how this personal tragedy is now going to become a tragedy for the whole country if nothing changes in the trajectory of the disease. We look at the epidemic as a main character in the film."
She recites a few of its harsh bullet points:
- The sixth-largest cause of death in the U.S., Alzheimer's is the only disease among the top 10 with no prevention, no treatment and no cure.
- Given the number of people it affects — victims and caregivers — as it drags on for years, "it's the most expensive disease in the country."
- While research has uncovered what Arledge says are "so many promising leads, so many intriguing clues," funds allocated for research are at a level far below those for many other diseases.
Battling Alzheimer's, she sums up, is "100 percent about money."
That said, "Every Minute Counts" puts human faces on this dollar-and-cents dilemma — and not just faces of victims, but also those of researchers, health officials and loved ones of the afflicted.
Perhaps most memorable is Daisy Duarte of Springfield, Missouri. Now 45, she used to own a sports bar, but for five years has served as a full-time live-in caretaker for her mother, who can no longer dress, bathe or feed herself — or recognize her daughter.
"I lost my first mom five years ago," says Duarte. "Alzheimer's is my second mom."
Then things get worse. Aware that an early-onset Alzheimer's gene runs through her family, giving Duarte 50-50 odds of having it, she decides to learn her fate. The results from the test aren't what she was praying for.
Guaranteed to get Alzheimer's, she continues to look after her declining mother knowing this is where her own path will take her in as little as 15 years.
The bad news galvanizes Duarte to become an advocate for Alzheimer's research. In the film, she is seen lobbying members of Congress for increased funding, where she gets a warm reception: Alzheimer's hasn't spared their families either.
But Duarte's activism points up one of the hurdles for getting out the word about this scourge: Unlike victims of most other plagues, Alzheimer's patients can't lobby for themselves.
All in all, "Every Minute Counts" is an alarming hour. But it isn't without hope.
"There are a lot of promising things in development," says Arledge. "With enough support to bring them across the finish line, they could make a difference in the next five or 10 years.
"It's just a matter of money and focus."