05/16/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

Alzheimer's, HIV/AIDS and Us

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It's not often that a Broadway musical and the British Prime Minister sing from the same songbook. But that's exactly what's happening in New York this week. At the Duke Theatre, the musical The Memory Show debuted, dramatizing the devastation families suffer when dealing with Alzheimer's. Across town, at Rockefeller University, David Cameron announced that, during the UK's Presidency of the G-8 he will make it a top priority to forge a new international approach to fight dementia.

If history is any guide, this unwitting confluence between art and politics may mean big things for Alzheimer's. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the fight against HIV/AIDS was embraced by artists and politicians alike, and in the span of a two decades the disease transformed from a certain death sentence to a manageable illness. It's a truly miraculous story -- one that owes its success to politicians and playwrights alike, not to mention the scores of scientists, advocates, business partners, and others who made HIV/AIDS a top agenda item in both public and private sectors.

This diverse attention is now being given to Alzheimer's, a disease that is poised to become the nightmare of the 21st century without transformative breakthroughs in care, treatment, and prevention. With Alzheimer's -- more so than any other non-communicable disease -- it is the ripple effect that is most destructive. Not only do individuals lose their emotional and intellectual lives, but families spend years and even decades watching loved ones fall further and further away. And communities, nations, and global organizations spend hundreds of billions on care and treatment. Already, Alzheimer's consumes $604 billion annually, or 1 percent of global GDP. And that's just the tip of the iceberg as longevity extends across the globe and we live into our hundreds with ever-increasing frequency.

The global Alzheimer's epidemic, however, is only just beginning. As David Cameron noted when he committed the UK's G8 Presidency to addressing Alzheimer's, "as more people live longer, [Alzheimer's] is fast becoming one of the biggest social and healthcare challenges we face." Indeed, as the global population ages, rates of Alzheimer's are poised to skyrocket, as increases aging and rates of Alzheimer's are nearly perfectly correlated. One in every eight people over the age of 65 will fall victim, and Alzheimer's will infect nearly half of people who live to see 85. As longevity continues to stretch in the developed world, and as it leaps by decades in the developing world, Alzheimer's will become a pandemic far greater than what we saw with HIV/AIDS a few decades ago. The need for a cure is urgent.

For all the peril, there is hope yet. Events in New York suggest how this fight can be won.

On one hand, solutions to Alzheimer's will require concerted political action. David Cameron's leadership through G8 is a great start. G8 nations are feeling the brunt of the Alzheimer's explosion already, and prioritizing research and global collaboration is a substantial first-step. Cameron's idea to involve the private sector is also promising.

We have seen similar efforts emerge in the public sector with the OECD and the WHO, and parallel initiatives have recently been launched in the private sector, such as the CEO Initiative on Alzheimer's, which aims to reduce the time and costs of developing Alzheimer's therapies. With G8 leadership, PM Cameron may be able to help "move the needle." Developing nations will soon find themselves in similar or worse positions than G8 nations with Alzheimer's, and their participation in this fight will be essential. While Cameron leads the G8, the OECD is also stepping up with its workshop this June at Oxford University on Aging, Alzheimer's and Big Data.

On the other hand, The Memory Show and other artful depictions of Alzheimer's can prove equally essential. For many, Alzheimer's is still a foreign problem, one that other people have to deal with. Or, worse, it's presumed to be an inevitable part of aging. The Memory Show and similar dramatic renderings of the Alzheimer's struggle can evoke sympathy from mass audiences and put a face to the disease. One can recall how Tom Hanks's role in Philadelphia did the same for HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s. This is the power of art, but it's also its duty.

The Memory Show is a notable step. It blends a difficult, torturous, and ethically-driven dramatization of Alzheimer's with song and dance. The tensions and struggles of the mother (Catherine Cox) and the daughter (Leslie Kritzer) provide but a glimpse of what the 21st century may have in store. In the years ahead, millions and millions of us will be forced to care for spouses and parents, and families and communities across the globe will again be torn apart by disease.

Last year, Dr. Peter Piot -- who led UNAIDS through its historic achievement -- claimed that Alzheimer's was a "time bomb" and that a society-wide effort similar to the HIV/AIDS movement was needed. This week in New York, we see two pieces of evidence that suggest a movement may be emerging.

And it leads one to ask: through broad collaboration, can we find a way to "de-link" Alzheimer's from aging? It may seem inconceivable, but so too did a cure for HIV/AIDS when Philadelphia debuted in cinemas twenty years ago. Let's imagine the same for Alzheimer's.

Michael Hodin writes the Age and Reason blog for The Fiscal Times