AARP is Disrupting Dementia with a $60 Million Investment in Brain Health

Lukas Budimaier

AARP has our back when it comes to protecting our own brain health and those of our loved ones.

Dementia isn’t often an affliction we worry about for ourselves. It’s usually a concern we have for our parents or older relatives. But with nearly 10 million new cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease occurring each year, according to the World Health Organization, it’s time we start thinking and doing our part to stave off the horrible syndrome and disease, so our children won’t have the fears we now have. While caring for our loved ones and ourselves may seem like a personal battle, in this fight we have backup from the AARP, which recently invested $60 million in the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF) in order to jump-start its “Disrupt Dementia” campaign. In addition, AARP has secured the participation of UnitedHealth Group and Quest Diagnostics in the campaign, with both investing $10 million and $5 million respectively, bringing the total investment into the DDF to $75 million.

The goal of the campaign is to develop new technologies and treatments for “dementias while providing education, support, and hope for patients and family caregivers impacted by the physical, emotional, financial stress of dementia,” according to a news release. This could lead to quicker diagnoses, medication that remains effective, and even a cure. But also, the Disrupt Dementia campaign will mean a world of difference for caregivers seeking information and support, especially since “67 percent of physicians say they [currently] lack the tools to discuss and create plans to help their patients improve their health,” according to an online survey by AARP and FH Global Intelligence.

“Doctors felt they didn’t have enough information to give us,” recalled actor Jane Krakowski about her father’s dementia diagnosis, during a panel discussion with Katie Couric about the campaign in June. “ ‘We don’t have anything else to give you. Go ride it out at home.’ ”

Fortunately, the future of dementia treatment isn’t as bleak, but there are some things to consider about the disease now. First, dementia is a syndrome that can be caused by Alzheimer’s disease, as well as depression, infection, untreated high blood pressure, and untreated diabetes. Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed. And by the time you present symptoms, your body has been compromised on a cellular level for a decade or more.

UPTOWN spoke with Dr. Charlotee Yeh of AARP Services, Inc. (ASI) about ways to exercise your brain now, the affordability of dementia drugs, what you should do if you suspect a loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, whether cannabis is a viable treatment, and more.

What does this investment possibly mean for the future of dementia?

Dr. Charlotee Yeh: For me, the Discovery Dementia Fund is so exciting because we are finally bringing together all the different players — whether it’s academics, non-profits, for-profit operations — to really invest in what is the cause of dementia and what can we do to actually cure and treat it, because we don’t have that now. Think about cancer, you know, 20 [or] 30 years ago, the same thing. You wouldn’t say the word "cancer," you’d say "C." People were afraid what that meant if you got cancer. And then we started pouring all the money in, now we begin to understand the many kinds of cancers, the many drivers of cancer, and we are now getting cures and treatments. And cancer, in many cases, has become a chronic disease even if it isn’t curable. I expect that same thing to happen with this investment into dementia.

Have the pharmaceutical companies involved committed to keeping the drugs developed affordable? If most of the population doesn’t have access to these drugs, then the treatments won’t have as much impact as there could be.

Dr. Yeh: Well, of course. Like with anything, we are always going to worry about the affordability of the drugs, etc., but we know right now how much we are spending on dementia. Medicare spends five times as much on people with dementia than people without dementia. Medicaid spends 19 times on people who have dementia than those without. So our hope is that if we can identify early on with dementia [and] prevent, maybe it will cost us less.

What are some of the signs of cognitive decline we should look out for in ourselves and loved ones?

Dr. Yeh: So it’s really interesting. You know, we worry about memory loss. If we forget our keys, if we forget someone’s name, we think, “My god, I must have dementia.” It’s much more complex than that. It’s not just as simple as forgetting an occasional thing. We all do that. Maybe it’s because we didn’t get enough sleep the night before or maybe we’re under stress. It’s when the forgetfulness is everyday familiar things. When you drive home from work everyday and you can’t find your house, you get loss. If you’re showing poor judgment. You can’t write a check. You can’t remember how much money is in your bank account. It’s those complex decisions, judgments, personality changes. When you see that constellation, that’s when you really want to seek help or go see your doctor.

What should someone do if they suspect their loved one has dementia but they’re not getting a definitive diagnosis?

Dr. Yeh: The important thing is that if you suspect or worry your loved one or parent has dementia, of course, first you want to mention it to [their] doctor and ask their doctor for an evaluation. And if the doctor can’t do it, you can ask for a referral, whether to a specialist or somebody who specializes in neurology or to another physician that you can communicate with. It’s really, really important that you insist upon and you find a doctor who you can communicate and who can share your concerns and who takes you seriously.

I know young is a relative term, but why should young people be aware or thinking about brain health? I’m 37 and I don’t think my peers and younger are thinking about brain health, but as we learned from the panel, we should be.

Dr. Yeh: First of all, dementia takes many, many years to develop, and so the sooner we start with taking good care of our brains, the less chance we’ll have for full-blown dementia when we get older. You know, we’re living longer than ever, so we want to make sure our bodies and brains actually last the extra decades of life that we have. So things that are good for your brain, they’re good for you right now. Exercise. We all know exercise, keeping fit is good. We all know about nutrition, anti-inflammatories are good. But here are the three things that are good for us right now that we don’t think about: One is discovery, challenging, learning new things. Learn a new dance step. Learn a language. Read a different book. Draw a picture. As long as you are enriching your brain, you are building a reserve in your brain. So even if you start having dementia, the course might be mitigated. You’ve got brain reserve. Think of dementia as poverty of the mind. We don’t want to see ourselves that way, so why not build up and enrich our brain?

The second thing we don’t often talk about is how important friends, family, social connections [are]. We are very social animals and it is known that better mortality, better brain health is when you have friends and family to be with to support.

And the third is de-stress, sleep. You know, when you exercise a lot, your body gets sore and you know you have to rest. Your brain averages something like 70,000 bots per day, running at 268 miles per hour. So it’s OK to relax, to de-stress, and get some sleep because your brain needs rest just like your body.

Is cannabis a viable treatment for the symptoms or the disease itself?

Dr: Yeh: I don’t think we know enough now. We do know that it may relax you, reduce your stress. We know [cannabis use is] an inflammatory process that’s not good for the brain, but on the other hand, we don’t know enough now about how cannabis affects your brain in youth, before the age of 25. Cannabis can interfere with how well your brain develops, so what happens at the other end of age, I don’t think we know.

What would you say to someone who argues humans simply aren’t meant to live as long as the modern age allows us to? And maybe we should consider transitional methods rather than prolonging life?

Dr. Yeh: Of course, we all say we want to live as long as we can the way we want to, and clearly there will be a time in anyone’s life because aging is universal. We’re getting older every minute of every day … So I think it’s not about focusing on how long you live. We’ve added 20 to 30 more years to our life in the last century, so we want to make sure that we make the most of those years. So it’s not about the number, how long, it’s the best you can be, so that really matters. If we can improve access to health and affordability of health, if we can help in the communities with better housing and jobs, we know those matter. And finally, what you can do for yourself. That’s why exercise, food, staying social, and discovering new things. That’s why these are things we can do now because we don’t know how long we’re going to live, so we might as well make the most of it. You know 30 minutes a day [of exercise] is enough to mitigate it. Just 10 extra steps a day; you don’t have to start with running a marathon.

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