The devastating impact of Alzheimer's disease on his own mother — and on his father, who struggled to care for her — first prompted Gerry Richman to take a hard look at the disease.
As vice president of national productions at Twin Cities Public Television, he was the mastermind behind a 2004 Emmy-winning documentary called "The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer's." Now, Richman is back with another eye-opening film on the subject.
"Alzheimer's: Every Minute Counts" — airing across the country Wednesday — chronicles the struggles of people living with Alzheimer's and the emotional and financial challenges it poses for their families.
It also forecasts, through interviews with doctors and researchers, a looming crisis for the country as baby boomers enter their senior years and their risk of developing Alzheimer's increases.
"A lot of the experts use the term 'skyrocket,'?" Richman said, referring to the potential deluge of Alzheimer's cases.
The current numbers are scary enough. More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's — with one new case identified every minute.
Alzheimer's is a neurological disease that robs a person's memory and ability to care for oneself. There is no known cure, and it is not reversible.
In addition to the emotional toll, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to take care of someone with Alzheimer's, making it one of the most expensive diseases and provoking some health experts to predict that it will collapse both Medicare and Medicaid — and the finances of millions of people.
"This is a major wake-up call to the country about the need to find a cure and to support all efforts to find a cure, or there will be a major social and economic crisis in the United States," Richman said.
A call to action
Part of the problem is that for too long, Alzheimer's was not a recognized disease.
"It's a weird thing because it's not physically obvious, but it causes strange behavior," explained Elizabeth Arledge, writer, producer and director of both "The Forgetting" and "Every Minute Counts" documentaries. "Only within the last 20 years have people realized that it's a disease."
Although Alzheimer's can strike people younger than 65, it generally occurs in those much older. The risk of developing the disease doubles every five years after 65, according to the National Institute on Aging. It becomes much more common among people in their 80s and 90s. With longer life spans come greater numbers of people at risk of Alzheimer's.
"There hasn't been a large population of 85-year-olds until this generation," Arledge said.
As public awareness of Alzheimer's has grown, so has the amount of funding for medical research dedicated to it. Over the past four years, federal funding for the disease has doubled to $991 million. But that amount still pales in comparison with the billions the federal government spends on research for heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
Death rates for those diseases have dropped. Alzheimer's research advocates are hoping for a similar outcome if funding is increased. Arledge said that message comes through in the documentary.
"If there's something that people will come away with from the film, it would be that things can change when people mobilize," she said.
In the meantime, medical researchers are in a race against time to develop new therapies to better treat Alzheimer's symptoms.
"Do we cure cancer, heart disease or diabetes? No, but we can make significant progress," said Dr. Ron Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's disease Research Center. "So if I'm destined to develop Alzheimer's disease-related changes in the brain at age 75, and I can push that to age 78 or 80, that's a big deal. That's why I say delaying onset and slowing progression is a more realistic goal than a cure."
Tips for prevention
Despite limited research funds, some promising discoveries have been made in recent years. One finding, discussed in the film, is that sleep — particularly deep sleep — may have a protective effect on the brain and help ward off dementia.
"Part of the thought is that the proteins that are abnormal in the brain that probably cause or contribute to Alzheimer's disease are continually being turned over and metabolized," Petersen explained. "They get washed out in the spinal fluid system, and metabolized, and on their way. It turns out that during sleep, there's an important trafficking of this amyloid protein, which is thought to be one of the major culprits. And if you don't get adequate sleep, the clearing of the protein may be impaired, and that may contribute to some of the buildup of the protein and the toxicity."
In addition to sleep, other lifestyle behaviors may minimize your risk of dementia-related illnesses. Among them:
• Regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking every day.
• Eating a Mediterranean diet.
• Connecting socially. "Avoid withdrawing and watching TV all day when you're retired," Petersen recommends. "Remain active in society. Those kinds of stimulating activities are generally good for the brain."