HBO Probes Alzheimer’s Tragic Story

Posted May 6, 2009 at 4:51pm

What did former President Ronald Reagan, author E.B. White and singer Perry Como have in common? They all died of Alzheimer’s, a brain disease that slowly destroys memory.

Even though more than a century has passed since German pathologist Alois Alzheimer discovered this neurological disorder, no cure has been found.

This Sunday, cable TV network HBO will begin a series — “The Alzheimer’s Project— — featuring four documentaries, 15 short films, a community outreach program, a book and a Web site (hbo.com/alzheimers) designed to educate people and encourage them to help find cure for Alzheimer’s.

A 2009 Alzheimer’s Association report showed that 5.3 million Americans have the disorder. Alzheimer’s is also the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and could cost the government billions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid payments.

“It’s really important for us to find a cure,— said Maria Shriver, whose father, Sargent Shriver, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1983. Shriver, the wife of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), is executive producer of “The Alzheimer’s Project.—

The series’ first installment, “The Memory Loss Tapes,— profiles how seven individuals and their families grapple with Alzheimer’s. “We wanted to capture a sense of what it was to be inside the disease. Our plan was to show the progression of the illness through several stories along the way,— director/producer Shari Cookson explained on the cable network’s Web site.

The second part, “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?— will be broadcast Monday night. Based on Shriver’s book, “What’s Happening to Grandpa?— this 30-minute film introduces viewers to five children coping with having grandparents with Alzheimer’s.

“No matter what your age is … you’re a child of Alzheimer’s,— Shriver said. “This is a very difficult disease, and how [we] explain it to our children is in a way how we explain it to ourselves.—

The third film, “Momentum in Science,— will also be shown Monday night, after the second installment. It takes the audience to laboratories and clinics of 25 leading scientists and physicians who are working to figure out the cause of Alzheimer’s.

One of them is Dr. Carl Cotman of the University of California, whose research on mice has shown how exercise and healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels may contribute to increasing one’s chances for a long and healthy cognitive life.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve made enormous strides in understanding the biology of Alzheimer’s disease. We know which abnormalities in the brain are likely causing the symptoms of memory loss, confusion, irritability and aggression, language breakdown and general withdrawal,— Dr. Ronald Peterson of the Mayo Clinic said in a release.

Unless scientists reach a breakthrough, the Alzheimer’s Association projected the number of patients with the disease who are at least 65 years old to reach 16 million by 2050.

The fourth and final film, which will be aired Tuesday night, focuses on the caregivers. Figures gathered by the Alzheimer’s Association revealed that 9.9 million Americans provided 8.5 billion hours of care to Alzheimer’s patients. This translates to $94 billion worth of salary if the average hourly wage is $11.10.

Besides income loss, caring for Alzheimer’s patients — often a 24-hour job — could take a toll on the care provider, said filmmaker Bill Couturié, who directed the 48-minute “Caregivers.—

“It’s not uncommon for the caregiver to die before the patient,— Couturié said. “Caregivers must be able to find some respite.—