HBO: The Alzheimer's Project (May 2009)

Publication Date: 
Fri, 05/01/2009



The spring of 2009 marks the broadcast of an extraordinary event on Home Box Office (HBO) - a four-part documentary series (with fifteen short supplementary films and a companion handbook/DVD) on various aspects of Alzheimer's disease, broadcast on HBO main service, multiplex channels, HBO On Demand, HBO Podcasts, HBO Channel on YouTube, and available also on the World Wide Web, courtesy of HBO. The HBO "Alzheimer's Project" ( was sponsored by HBO Documentary Films and the National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health, in association with the Alzheimer's Association, Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, and the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back Alzheimer's Initiative.


In my mind, this series - a major enterprise sure to seize public interest - is a striking landmark achievement:  I remember when I was a medical student, twenty-five years ago, that the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease or dementia was kept under wraps - as if it was something to be ashamed of and hushed-up.  It was viewed as a rare event, and people didn't talk to one another about the pain it caused. Euphemisms abounded - "hardening of the arteries", or "old-timer's disease" - or it was simply ignored. Like many diseases, the common wisdom was that somehow the person who got it had done something to cause it. How things have changed!


Now, Alzheimer's disease is recognized to be one of the leading causes of death in America. Six million Americans have received the diagnosis. Presidents, movie stars, heroes of all walks of life - and openly, many of our parents, relatives, friends are brought to their clinicians for check-ups; talk about it at lunch; get support and advice from one another at support groups, over the dinner table, and over the Internet. The Alzheimer's Association, the medical community, religious and social groups - all have raised public awareness and knowledge. This has been an incremental process over the years - marked by many books, magazine articles, some superb TV including The Forgetting (, and I believe that we are on the edge of another dramatic and important even that, inspired by HBO's efforts, will put the disease right in the middle of international consciousness and discussion. 


And none too soon! The numbers are devastating: 6 million Americans! The number is probably an underestimate by half, and the number will increase dramatically over the next decade as the number of Americans who reach their seventh and eighth decade increases considerably. Our robust health and resulting longevity should be a matter of national pride. Yet, for too many, increasing age brings fear of dementia. And, beyond our compassion for those suffering from memory disorders, our concern goes beyond the patients themselves. Children of patients with Alzheimer's disease not only suffer the emotional pain of watching a loved one decline, but carry the burden that their own genes may be a ticking time bomb, that they may be watching their own future - and that of their children's - as well.


The HBO special will help cement in the public mind the idea that this epidemic is here, is worsening, and is not going away. The only way to head this off is research - one of the reasons we see in the HBO several researchers of many of the major hospitals and universities in Boston, and why those same institutions were among the sites where HBO chose to film.


While I hope that the sections in which I was filmed remained on the cutting-room floor - after all, the shine off my bald head would blind the viewer - I am proud of the fact that the Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Brigham & Women's Hospital are in the fore-front of Alzheimer's research, with true breakthroughs in genetics, understanding the molecules that go awry in the brain, in how those molecules disrupt brain function, and in therapeutic trials all pursued with vigor here in Boston. Much of these research is coordinated through our Massachusetts ADRC.


Many of the breakthroughs come by the effort of individuals, institutions such as the Alzheimer's Association, and foundations - sometimes big corporate foundations, sometimes small personal efforts - that fuel the engine of research and add momentum to our collected dream to stop this disease before symptoms begin.


I'll be explicit:  Part of our hope is that the extraordinary exposure and insight of the HBO special will help provide the US Congress with the will to support the national effort in Alzheimer's research, and to motivate individuals, corporations and foundations to ask "how can I help?".


In the words of the current Obama administration - there are "shovel-ready" programs ready to launch, save for the resources to get them off the ground. We cannot be passive and assume someone else will do it. We need to shoot for the moon and do anything in our power to care for the millions of global citizens struck by Alzheimer's and other dementias, to learn how to stop the progression, how to treat the disease, and most of all, how to prevent it, so that old age is not a time of fear, but a time of wisdom, reflection and joy.