Nearly everyone in America, including myself, is intimately connected to someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia. With 1 in 10 adults over 65 affected, everybody has somebody — a mother, a grandparent, a friend’s parent or a friend.
It’s the same with autism spectrum disorder. After a sharp rise, the prevalence now stands at 1 in 59 children. So every family is likely to know another facing the condition.
A tsunami is racing toward health care and the world’s societies — and it is us. The number of Americans 65 and older with Alzheimer’s dementia is projected to more than double by 2050, for example, with associated costs rising to $1.1 trillion. And in the next decade a half-million teens with autism will enter adulthood — and stand to lose many support services — as care costs exceed $400 billion.
Meanwhile, the emotional costs are unquantifiable. At UC Davis Health we understand the gravity of the challenge, and believe that we can and must play a major role in helping to stem these tides.
We are already home to two internationally known neuroscience centers — the MIND Institute for neurodevelopmental disorders, and our Alzheimer’s Disease Center — that have played historic roles in advancing knowledge, prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Now we need to scale up the reach of their work to assist even more families.
To help do so, UC Davis has launched formal, long-term research projects around both dementia and neurodevelopmental disorders. They’re among a series of initiatives we call “Big Ideas” — forward-thinking, interdisciplinary programs designed to positively impact the world for generations.
The Autism, Community and Technology initiative and the Healthy Brain Aging initiative both revolve around two core themes: changing paradigms to intervene across the entire lifespan, and harnessing leading-edge technology to help do so. In the case of autism, that means using digital and telehealth to assist families in their own communities, including more adults. In regard to dementia, it means heading damage off at the pass in childhood and middle age through neuroimaging-driven insights.
I can speak personally to the wisdom of the lifespan approach. My story, like many, includes some denial about the onset of dementia symptoms among loved ones. We tend to reflexively disregard small signs, then slightly larger ones. We don’t want to acknowledge that irreparable damage has come.
But there are things that can be done, especially if we start early — and often before we see any signs at all. We tend to think of Alzheimer’s as an end-of-life disease that “just appears,” but the reality is we can work on prevention starting very young.
Health systems can aid this effort by making brain health a stronger part of preventive care. Our future is whole-person care that includes foundation-building during youth, followed by susceptibility detection, active prevention, early diagnosis and supportive treatment across adulthood.
We have a long road ahead and many questions to answer. How do we get information about brain health out to people? How do we popularize it, make it part of population health?
The battles with Alzheimer’s and autism are difficult. But not long ago, we couldn’t go to the moon, stop cancer, or control AIDS. There’s no reason we can’t make the same progress here.