Time for a New Strategy in the War on Alzheimer’s Disease

Policy makers, public officials, and researchers alike are fond of “declaring war” on diseases. The wisdom of this “one disease at a time” approach, however, is questionable. Consider, for instance, the war on cancer. At the time it was declared by Richard Nixon in 1971, cancer was the second leading cause of death in the United States. Despite progress, this statistic has not changed, and most experts will admit—privately, at least—that a universal cure for cancer is unlikely to be achieved.

More recently, policy makers have declared a new disease war: this time, a “war on Alzheimer’s disease.” Over the past 5 years, Congress has set aside nearly 1.7 billion US dollars in funding dedicated for Alzheimer’s disease research (Hodes, 2018). Indeed, in fiscal year 2019 it is expected that the National Institute on Aging (NIA) will spend approximately 2 billion dollars on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, out of a total budget of 3.08 billion dollars (Hodes, 2018). Thus, nearly 2/3 of research funding at the NIA has been earmarked specifically for Alzheimer’s disease, causing some to (jokingly, I think) suggest we rename the NIA the “National Institute on Alzheimer’s Disease.” As I will expand on below, these monetary earmarks may have unwittingly hindered progress. I believe it is unlikely that major breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s disease treatment will occur without a substantial change in approach.

The Gerontological Society of America