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Dollars for Alzheimer's
Diplomatic Pouch / March 30, 2009

By Larry Luxner

If the latest grim statistics are on target, then at least 90 of the 725 attendees at last Wednesday night's National Alzheimer's Gala will be struck with Alzheimer's disease by the age of 65. Of those lucky enough to make it to 85, around half will have contracted the incurable, memory-robbing illness.

Not a subject to be taken lightly, Alzheimer's spares no ethnic or religious group. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, heterosexuals, gays, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and atheists are all equally affected. From multimillionaire Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-West Virginia) to the homeless, just about everybody has a parent, grandparent or relative suffering from this insidious disease.

"This is a challenging time for our country, but it's also a time to address fundamental issues like health-care reform," said Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Fairfax-based Alzheimer's Association and one of many speakers at the Mar. 25 event. "We cannot fix health-care without dealing with Medicare, and we cannot fix Medicare without dealing with Alzheimer's. This association continues to move this cause forward by increasing public attention on the growing epidemic we face."

According to Johns, people with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia cost Medicaid nine times as much as the average Medicaid patient in the same age group.

"By the middle of this century, we will spend $20 trillion on Alzheimer's. That's equal to 25 stimulus bills," he said. "That is not sustainable, folks. We must invest in solutions that'll result in better care, and ultimately the prevention of Alzheimer's. Making even big substantial investments in Alzheimer's research is not only a humane imperative, but an economic necessity."

Alzheimer's is now the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, where 5.1 million people age 65 or older and 200,000 under 65 already have the disease. Worldwide, some 30 million people are afflicted with Alzheimer's, a number projected to exceed 100 million by 2050.

Perhaps that explains why 20 ambassadors co-chair the National Alzheimer's Gala, an annual event that has raised over $6 million for Alzheimer's research since 2003. Six of those foreign diplomats attended the glitzy dinner at the National Building Museum: Héctor Timerman of Argentina, Jan Matthysen of Belgium, Andreas Kakouris of Cyprus, Pierre Vimont of France, Ichiro Fujisaki of Japan, and João de Vallera of Portugal.

Vimont was singled out for special recognition as he accepted the 2009 Chairman's Leadership Award on behalf of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Last year, Sarkozy announced a $2.4 billion national strategic plan to fight Alzheimer's in France, where as many as 860,000 people currently have the disease — a number expected to jump to 2.1 million by 2040.

In addition to establishing a new foundation for Alzheimer's research, improved dianosis, care and quality of life, and efforts to change perceptions about Alzheimer's and those affected, Sarkozy also utilized his six-month presidency of the European Union to publicize Alzheimer's and its long-term ramifications.

"If we were dealing with people's health only when there is global growth, it would be unacceptable," the French president recently said, commenting on the need to continue the struggle against Alzheimer's amidst worldwide economic uncertainty. "Whatever the context we are in, the fight of all Europeans against Alzheimer's disease is a priority."

Over an elegant dinner of pistachio and hazelnut crisps, saffron couscous, spring pea stacks, peppercorn tenderloin and mushroom-crusted rockfish, attendees — who paid $500 a plate to be there — heard from gala co-chairs George and Trish Vradenburg as well as Thomas C. Nelson, chief operating officer of the American Association of Retired Persons, and TV personality Chris Matthews of "Hardball" fame.

The event, which raised nearly $1.1 million for Alzheimer's research, also featured an address by Maria Shriver, first lady of California, and from various celebrities, politicians and scientists racing to find a cure for Alzheimer's.

They also watched a short video, "Lost Faces" — a tribute to famous Americans who died of Alzheimer's. These include Peter Falk, Perry Como, Cyrus Vance, Aaron Copeland, Barry Goldwater, Charles Bronson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rosa Parks, Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan.

During the evening, William E. Klunk and Chester Mathias of the University of Pittsburgh were bestowed with the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Award for their contributions to the advancement of Alzheimer's research.

Likewise, Sen. Rockefeller and his wife, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, were honored with the Sargent and Eunice Shriver Profiles in Dignity Award for their efforts to promote a greater understanding of Alzheimer's disease.

"I think of all the people in West Virginia who can't afford professional care," said Rockefeller, noting that caring for his afflicted mother costs $300,000 a year. "We have to pass a comprehensive health-care bill which covers it all. There can be no exceptions or parts left for later bills."

Sharon Percy Rockefeller spoke about her father, retired Sen. Charles H. Percy of Illinois. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Percy was known for his energy and determination. But in the early 1990s, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and it's been a long, sad slide ever since.

"This is the first time I've spoken openly about my father. For more than 15 years, I have protected him, because I thought it was the right thing to do. But of course I was wrong, and now I want my words to be a tribute to him," said his daughter, noting that eventually, the former senator's behavior became erratic and unpredictable.

"He did not want a name on this awful thing. He did everything he could to push back this disease. He exercised eight hours a day, and cut his calories by a third," she said. "He doesn't know the Lehrer News Hour from the cartoons, but he knows he has to turn to Channel 26. He holds up a newspaper and has no idea what's in it."

But the most moving speech came from Robert Blackwell, formerly a top CIA analyst whose expertise on the former Soviet Union proved crucial for three presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Cursed with a family history of Alzheimer's, Blackwell told his audience how he gradually came to realize that he, too, had the disease. At 64, he was diagnosed with the feared illness and retired from the spy agency.

"I decided I wanted to be a spokesperson for Alzheimer's, and was soon approached by a reporter from USA Today to share my story," said Blackwell, who has a blog on the newspaper's website where he writes about living with Alzheimer's. "Since then, I have received countless phone calls and letters from people with Alzheimer's, and from caregivers. There's a real sense of friendship and community among us."

Blackwell, whose 94-year-old mother also has Alzheimer's and no longer walks or talks, urged gala attendees to open their wallets and pocketbooks and give generously.

"Think of the next generation. Our children are at risk," he said haltingly, at times forgetting a word or two. "There is a cure out there somewhere, and we must find it. I do believe that when a door closes, God opens us a window. God did not cause me to have Alzheimer's, but since I have it, He wants me to use my voice to help others. I encourage all of you to do the same."

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