‘Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?’ NOVA documentary says we’re making progress

Every 66 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer's disease, the progressive form of dementia that causes memory loss and cognitive decline.

By 2050, that rate will double, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. More than five million Americans are living with it now, and with a rapidly aging population of baby boomers, those numbers are skyrocketing.

There is no cure, and drugs on the market thus far have had limited effect. But the war against Alzheimer’s is being waged on many fronts, with drugs in development to treat or prevent what is now the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

Those efforts are the subject of “Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?” a NOVA documentary airing Apr. 13 on PBS. It presents the latest theories and clinical trials that some day may lead to prevention or cure.

Dr. Reisa Sperling, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, appears in the program in conjunction with the study she’s conducting on a drug designed to halt Alzheimer’s before symptoms develop.

“We’ve learned that changes in the brain begin a decade, maybe two decades, before the dementia stage, before people have symptoms. Now, with PET (positron emission tomography) scans we have the ability to detect the amyloid plagues that build up in the brain,” Sperling said. “In heart disease, we give statin drugs to lower cholesterol and prevent buildup of plaques in the heart and arteries. We hope to do the same kind of thing with Alzheimer’s.”

Her trial involves an anti-amyloid antibody developed by Eli Lilly & Co. ‘We need 1,000 people for this trial, and we’re about halfway enrolled,” she said of the multinational, three-and-a-half year study, in which centers at UCLA, USC and UC Irvine are participating. “If we finish enrollment in 2016 or early 2017, I hope we’ll have results in 2019 or early 2020,” Sperling added, encouraging people 65-85 to sign up to participate at A4study.org. “The only way we’re going to get answers is if people join us in this fight.”

As presented in the documentary, other studies in the works target later-stage Alzheimer’s, some by targeting amyloid plaques and others by targeting tau, another protein that builds up inside brain cells and causes what are called “tangles.” Merck will soon test a BACE (enzyme) inhibitor. “I think we should be doing combination trials, more than one medicine, hit it with everything we can, like we do in cancer,” Sperling said. “I want us to try lots of different avenues of treatment but start them at a point that we can still rescue the brain.”

She’s hopeful that there will be an effective drug on the market in 10 years or less, but is sad that it will come too late to help her father, who recently died from Alzheimer’s, as did his father before him. “That’s part of the reason I study Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all very real to me,” Sperling said.

The fact that one in nine people over 65 will become afflicted makes it real for many families, “and it has the potential to bankrupt our health care system,” Sperling pointed out.

“Alzheimer’s disease is non-discriminatory. It affects people of all ethnicities, races and religions. The only way that it affects Jews specifically is that Jews have a long lifespan, and many live to the age of risk” and tend to be more educated and work to an older age in professional jobs, Sperling, who is Jewish, said. “Education protects people initially from showing their symptoms, but once educated people start to decline, they decline more rapidly. They may have a cognitive reserve that hides their Alzheimer’s disease for a long time, but [it] doesn’t protect them from getting the disease.”

Although there is a gene that is linked to Alzheimer’s, Sperling doesn’t recommend testing for it because the test “tells you your increased risk but it doesn’t guarantee whether you will or won’t get Alzheimer’s disease. Some people with the gene live to 90, and 40 percent of people who get Alzheimer’s do not have the gene.”

Amid all the bad news and daunting statistics surrounding Alzheimer’s disease, Sperling has some good news. “There is some evidence that the rates of dementia are getting lower or at least slowing the rate of increase because of good health care and diet. What a heart-healthy diet and exercise seem to be doing is making people more resistant to developing the Alzheimer’s pathology,” she said. “Living heart-healthy is good for the brain, too.”

But it’s not enough, she said. “It will be a combination of healthy lifestyle and biologically active agents that will tip the odds in our favor. I do think we’re making progress. I wish it could go faster. It’s incredibly sad for me that we couldn’t in time to help my dad, but I hope that my kids won’t have to go through what I and my mom did,” Sperling stated. “I hope that people who watch the film get excited and motivated to join the fight.”

NOVA’s “Can Alzheimer's Be Stopped?” premieres Apr. 13 on PBS.

From L.A., following the Egyptian signs to the Red Sea

If the Passover haggadah seems like hieroglyphics to you, it could be a good thing.

Though the Israelites left Egypt presumably to escape the ankhs and eyes of Horus of the ancient written language, recently I discovered that hieroglyphics — a system of pictorial characters — had a way of writing me into the haggadah.

Considering that on Passover we are commanded to re-enact an event of which we have no memory, perhaps adding some details from the Egyptian point of view might deepen our understanding, or at the very least acclimate us to the theme of leaving Egypt.

Besides, since the current Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi had been seen recently in a video telling Egyptians to teach their children hatred for Jews, I was looking for a way to ameliorate my own responsive charged feelings and not bring them to the seder table.

Carol Meyers, a professor of religion at Duke University in an interview on the PBS show “NOVA,” related, “There are other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There's something called mnemohistory, or memory history. It's a kind of collective cultural memory.”

I wondered, would looking into the holiday with an Egyptian eye help me to recover some of that cultural memory and see past the present?

After sitting through seders for so many years, where a trip through the Exodus often becomes an endurance race to the matzah ball soup, I knew that my cultural memory definitely could use some augmentation and elaboration.

To freshen my “mnemohistory” — this being Los Angeles, where movie magic memories are made — I made tracks for the historic Egyptian Theater in the heart of the Hollywood Boulevard tourist district.

The theater, an ornate Egyptian Revival movie palace that had a large stage to accommodate the elaborate prologues before the films, recently was refurbished. Developed by Charles Toberman along with the Jewish impresario Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame, the theater had opened in 1922. As luck would have it, a few weeks later, King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in Egypt, resulting in an Egyptian craze that swept the nation.

Further connecting the theater to the Exodus, I found that the “The Ten Commandments” debuted there in 1923. According to the theater’s website, the prologue for the Cecil B. DeMille silent epic featured more than 100 costumed performers on stage, including “players seen in their identical roles in the flesh and blood.”

Now doesn’t that beat Uncle Earl droning through the Four Sons?

Still thinking about those costumes, I left in haste for the theater.

Upon arriving at its columned courtyard, I sat on a bench for a pre-holiday lunch of matzah and hard-boiled egg. Looking out at the surrounding cement walls that were cast to resemble stone blocks, I read a passage from a haggadah that I had brought along: “They put taskmasters over them to oppress them in their suffering; and they built the store-cities for Pharaoh, Pithom and Ramses.”

And movie theaters as well?

As I poured myself a little juice, I tried to decipher the hieroglyphics — scarabs, ankhs, jackals, birds and snakes — that were painted on a nearby wall.

For me, Egyptian imagery conjures up a creepy feeling of deja vu. Was it a cultural memory from the generations spent in Egypt? More likely just the result of too many haggadahs illustrated with pyramids, crooks and flails.

Even if the Exodus story has no basis in historical evidence, it is such a keystone story, so imbedded in Jewish outlook and religious practice, that when you see the signs of Egypt, even in kitschy indecipherable fashion, they speak to you.

On the hieroglyphics wall there were no cute wind-up frogs or Ten Plagues puppets like the kids have at the seder. But looking up at them, I wondered whether after the hail, lice, boils and cattle death if some Egyptians might have wanted to inscribe “Hebrews go now” on a wall.

Below the hieroglyphics I noticed a couple of cartouches. Originally worn by the pharaohs, the oval-shaped inscriptions could be worn as an amulet or be placed on a tomb.

Thinking about the 10th plague — the death of the Egyptian firstborn — I imagined the resulting stacks of amulets. It put new meaning in the seder custom of taking a drop of wine from our cups, demonstrating that we are not rejoicing over our enemy’s loss.

Curious how my own name would look on a cartouche — as apparently are others — I used my smartphone to go a hieroglyphics website that provides the Egyptian symbols to spell your name. Mine was represented by two reeds, a hand, an owl, a hawk and water — images that made me feel like I was connected to a body of water; making me think of the shore of the Red Sea.

To get to Passover, it was time to cross.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.