January 05, 2014

The Latest War

The NY Times didn’t cover it; neither did the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal. But the BBC made a big deal of the G8 “dementia summit,” hosted by the UK just a couple of weeks ago. Representatives from the research world, the pharmaceutical industry, and the Organization of Economic Development, along with government health leaders, met to discuss what to do about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. 

Seven members of the G8 took the conference seriously: the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia each sent their top health representative. The US didn’t send the Secretary of Health and Human Services. We didn’t even send the assistant secretary. We sent the "acting assistant secretary for planning and evaluation" in the Department of Health and Human Services. The title says it all: the US didn’t regard this conference as a priority.

Granted, President Obama already announced his domestic analog, the “National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease,” which looks a lot like the G8 agreement in its ambitious, some would say outlandish, promise to cure Alzheimer’s disease. Granted, the principal American governmental health agency is currently bogged down trying to roll out the Affordable Care Act, which would finally bring the US in line with the rest of the developed world in providing health insurance to its citizens. And granted that the G8’s solemn commitment to “develop a cure or treatment for dementia by 2025” is no more likely to succeed than was Nixon’s 1971 National Cancer Act, aka the War on Cancer. But dementia represents a  public health challenge of staggering proportions. Globally there are 44 million people with dementia. Their care costs $604 billion a year. By 2050, barring any substantial progress in preventing or treating the disease, there will be 135 million people with dementia. 

What’s interesting about the Summit on Dementia is not the rhetoric about cure; it’s the pledge of eight of the scientifically most advanced countries to cooperate to solve a problem that concerns the entire world.  Maybe the promise to share data and to work collaboratively on research is a lot of hype. Maybe the Dementia Summit will prove to be as disappointing as the international conferences on climate change have been. But within the US, there is a movement to break down the barriers between specialties and to promote genuinely interdisciplinary research. There is a growing sense that cooperation may be more powerful than competition in science. Working together with other nations to improve the care and treatment of people with dementia seems like a great way to break down barriers. How’s that for a New Year’s resolution?

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