Commentary—Study Heightens Awareness, But at What Cost?


The study conducted by Brookmeyer and colleagues is a logical and thoughtful attempt to size the potential impact of Alzheimer's disease now and in the future, updating old-technology estimates based on actual diagnoses with new technologically derived diagnoses of preclinical neurodegenerative states. They acknowledge that the uncertainty in the actual disease burden we will face is centered on the question of conversion rates, which vary between studies and are far less certain in the preclinical stages than the symptomatic ones.

Scientific interest aside, the main purpose of an article like this is to heighten awareness and concern by demonstrating that symptomatic Alzheimer's disease is the tip of a much larger iceberg and warrants more funding for research and clinical care. The worry that articles like this—or that the media attention they receive—create for me, however, is that they potentially contribute to a growing public panic at a time when we still lack truly meaningful therapy. As a doctor, I want to give my patients with MCI and dementia reason to believe they still have a meaningful life and that there is hope, rather than having them feel that I have just pronounced a death sentence.

The attention paid by the Alzheimer's Association is understandable, given its mission of increasing awareness and supporting more funding, but it omits to mention another important article showing that dementia rates are actually declining when data are adjusted for our aging population (observed vs expected).

We need to maintain public awareness without creating panic. There is no question that Alzheimer's disease is a major public health issue that warrants all the funding we can provide to researchers seeking a cure. How to balance that need with the need to give our population hope that all is not lost when they misplace their keys is the challenge this article raises.

Richard J. Caselli, MD
Professor of Neurology
Mayo Clinic
Scottsdale, Arizona

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