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The Time Is Now to Bring the Fight to Dementia

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Co-authored by R. Nathan Spreng

My great-aunt Edna joined us for Christmas this year. She's 96 years old. She was lucid at the dinner table, but on a bad day, she will call me forty or fifty times and not remember having done so. The voicemails stack up.

If you are diagnosed with cancer in this day and age, you have options, and you might beat the disease. Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery -- all of your options are ugly, but it is a war and you've got a fighting chance to win.

Right now, approximately 4 million people have dementia in the United States. By 2030, this number will double, costing an estimated $400 billion in care. All of this money is used not for treatment, but to provide comfort and care during a slow and ugly period of decline. If you are diagnosed with dementia, your options are palliative: How can we ease your deterioration? How many times a day do you want your diaper changed? For top dollar, you will be comforted and cared for, but nothing will slow your decline. By the time you die, there will be more relief than sadness, because the person your family loves will have disappeared long ago.

In truth, it is doesn't have to be this way. Dementia is not a natural consequence of getting older. It is a disease, like so many others. There are hundreds of scientists and researchers working on possible early identification and treatment for dementia. But the battle against this insidious disease is underfunded, and as more Baby Boomers age into the cohort, we have less to offer. The science is nearly ready -- the time to wage war against dementia is now.

We don't know the primary causes of dementia, nor do we know how it "normally" progresses. There are some good ideas out there about how to stop it, but more research is required. And with the current federal government sequestration strangling innovative research funding, you're going to need to order more adult diapers.

The research agenda is as clear now as it's ever been: early pre-screening is important -- just like you go for a routine prostate exam or breast exam, we must also screen for the early signs of neurotoxins, which show up in the spinal fluid or the blood. Brain imaging is also essential. Early identification can lead to treatment that can potentially alter the progression and loss of memory that so painfully affects millions of families.

The time is now to step up and understand the relationship between the biological changes and psychological changes that affect our families. When Grandma comes home from shopping, it's not just that she forgot the turkey: she doesn't even remember the names of her grandchildren. It is just as tough for them -- if Grandma is experiencing dementia, odds are her children and grandchildren's brains are struggling with it as well. We need to know more than just the odds that her grandchildren will succumb to dementia; we're obliged to give them options, to give them the tools to fight the disease that has taken Grandma's brain. We can, and we must, do everything we can to protect them.

Take no assurances from President Obama's BRAIN initiative. This research program will not involve human beings for decades, if ever. Further, the funding for this program is a slight easing of the strangulation affecting all research in the United States. It currently brings in less than 3 percent of new funding for brain research and is a fraction of the one billion Euros being spent on the new European Human Brain Project initiative. The recent commitment by the G8 to cooperate on innovation and research to find a cure or treatment for dementia by 2025, as well as the National Alzheimer's Project Act, a law that requires the creation of a strategic national plan to combat dementia, are steps in the right direction. In order to a national strategy to end dementia to succeed, the United States needs to make a real and substantial investment in pure and applied research dollars to be channeled through the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation. America has the scientific talent to rise to the challenge of stopping dementia. More urgently, we need the money to move the endeavor forward, and give you the tools to fight the good fight against dementia.

Cancer is ugly, but today, thanks to decades of well-funded research, a diagnosis is not a death sentence. Through innovative advances in health research overall, many of us can now expect to live into our 80s, 90s and even pass 100 years of age. However, with such advanced age comes a heavy price -- the odds of developing dementia increase nearly 50 percent! No person ever wants to die "that way", bedridden and withering away from the person you once were, and away from the people who love you. We want to give people a fighting chance to take on dementia head-on and win. To do that will require a significant increase in funding for basic research on the impact of aging on the brain.

Dr. Nathan Spreng is the director of the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition at the Human Neuroscience Institute at Cornell University.

Nicco Mele is on the faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School and a leading expert in the integration of social media and technology with culture, politics and policy.