We Must End the Alzheimer’s Tsunami

By William L. Henrich, MD, MACP, President and Professor of Medicine, UT Health San Antonio
Tuesday, February 26, 2019

In November 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a joint resolution passed by Congress that brought attention to the “two and one-half million Americans” affected by Alzheimer’s disease and the $25 billion annual cost of nursing home admissions.

Today, 5.7 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias cost the nation $277 billion a year. Nearly one-third of our senior adults die with a form of dementia, and every 65 seconds an American develops Alzheimer’s.

Texas ranks fourth nationally in the number of Alzheimer’s cases at 380,000 and is second in Alzheimer’s-related deaths (9,135 in 2016). Mirroring a national trend, deaths among Texans with Alzheimer’s rose 180 percent between 2000 and 2015. Hispanics, who account for 40 percent of the state’s population, have a 30 to 50 percent higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

More troubling, this tidal wave is intensifying.

William L. Henrich, MD, MACP, President and Professor of Medicine, UT Health San Antonio

Unless effective prevention and cures are discovered, the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to nearly triple to 13.8 million by 2050. By that time, Texas families may be assisting 1 million of their loved ones affected by the disease.

Earlier this year, Sudha Seshadri, MD, Founding Director of the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio, discussed these issues at a meeting of The University of Texas System Board of Regents. “Responding to the Alzheimer’s Tsunami” was the theme, which was fitting because we truly face a healthcare storm of immense proportions. The loss of memories and decision-making skills by those who have Alzheimer’s is only part of the toll on families, Dr. Seshadri says. This is because caregivers who manage their loved ones’ daily needs also experience untold stress and anxiety.

Dr. Seshadri has worked as a dementia researcher for more than two decades, and she is a senior investigator in the Framingham Heart Study. This New England-based study has enrolled three generations of people since 1948. Investigators are learning valuable insights by analyzing the health outcomes of these participants, including associations between heart health and dementia.

In December 2017, we recruited Dr. Seshadri to UT Health San Antonio to serve as the Founding Director of the Biggs Institute. It was quite a coup for our community. National Institutes of Health funding is very difficult to obtain in this era, and high-quality researchers typically have one or two NIH grants. Dr. Seshadri, a demonstrated leader in the field of dementia, is an investigator on no less than eight NIH grants. We could not have chosen a better leader to champion this cause in our city and region.

The Biggs Institute, backed by $50 million raised from the San Antonio community, will tackle the Alzheimer’s challenge from all sides — by caring for caregivers, providing novel therapies in clinical trials, understanding risk factors in Hispanics and identifying molecular signatures of the disease and new pathways to prevent and treat it. This is an all-out commitment to quell the rising tsunami. We do it for patients and families, in memory of a great friend to the San Antonio community, Glenn Biggs.

Known for his dedication and service to the community, Biggs was a prominent figure whose leadership influenced economic development across San Antonio. When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he and his family struggled to find comprehensive care. This search led him to approach UT Health San Antonio and community leaders to address the need for a comprehensive center dedicated to understanding Alzheimer’s disease. His vision of a center to transform care and advance discovery is now alive in the Biggs Institute at UT Health San Antonio.

On Feb. 24, the Biggs Institute invited the public to attend a free informational event in the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. I moderated a panel discussion about “Protecting your brain from Alzheimer’s disease: role of sleep, diet and exercise.” Dr. Seshadri and other experts, including UT Health San Antonio’s Alan Peterson, PhD, who studies combat-related post-traumatic stress, discussed some observed associations between aspects of daily living and long-term brain health.

The same week, Dr. Seshadri welcomed leaders from the National Institutes of Health, the Alzheimer’s Association and other top academic medical centers for the inaugural “South Texas Alzheimer’s Conference on Transformational Care, Research and Therapeutics in Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Partnering with the community, the Biggs Institute will respond to the Alzheimer’s tsunami by understanding the biology of this complex disease, which will lead us to ways of preventing it and delivering personalized treatment. Our children and grandchildren will be the beneficiaries. In this way, we will honor the name of Glenn Biggs, his family, and all who have died of dementia and other brain diseases.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, now called UT Health San Antonio, is one of the country’s leading health sciences universities. With missions of teaching, research, healing and community engagement, its schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced 35,850 alumni who are leading change, advancing their fields and renewing hope for patients and their families throughout South Texas and the world. To learn about the many ways we make lives better, visit uthscsa.edu.