At age 80, Cairine Scott has a glow that most people would envy. Her eyes twinkle beneath a sweep of fine silver hair, and she chuckles at the old stories her 86-year-old husband, Henderson, brings up about the rich lives they’ve led together.
During an afternoon lunch, Cairine looks flawless in a textured red-and-green jacket. She’s also wearing elegant green-gold earrings and sporting a fiery-red manicure, all of which go well with her hobby of painting brightly coloured canvases, many of which decorate their room.
Cairine, a former elementary school teacher, has certainly led a full life, but she now has trouble remembering the life she’s lived. Cairine has Alzheimer’s disease, and although she follows the lunchtime conversation, she may not remember today’s meal, nor the visitors who ate with her.
After lunch, she shows off the library she designed a decade ago for the residents of Belmont House, one of Toronto’s best-appointed retirement homes, where she and her husband, a former university professor, live. A plaque on a shelf recognizes Cairine for her work on the library.
Today, it’s getting harder for her to read any books, or even spell her own name.
People with dementia can still lead vibrant lives, no matter their diagnosis. Yet the sharp rise of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is deeply concerning, especially as the population ages.
More than half a million Canadians now live with some form of dementia, and 65 per cent of those diagnosed after age 65 are women. This number is expected to rise to 937,000 by 2031, according to a report from the Alzheimer Society of Canada, and combined costs to the healthcare system and to individuals will balloon to $16.6 billion. It’s a similar story elsewhere.
Alzheimer’s is clearly a major health challenge, if not already a crisis. Yet a cure remains elusive. Countless dollars have been spent on finding a remedy ever since German psychiatrist Dr. Alois Alzheimer first identified the disease in 1906, while billions would be saved with the right treatment. So, what’s the issue?
One problem is that researchers still don’t fully understand the disease, says Dr. David Tang-Wai, Co-Director of University Health Network (UHN) Memory Clinic at Toronto Western Hospital.
“We have ideas and theories,” he says. Researchers know that a brain with Alzheimer’s is characterized by scattered clumps of two specific proteins, called beta-amyloid and tau, which prevent nutrients and signals from reaching brain cells. But experts don’t yet have a handle on what triggers the disease in a healthy brain.
“How do you go from a normal brain to the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease? We know pretty much everything after that, but what is that process?”
Without a clear understanding of the underlying biology of the illness, there isn’t much chance for a cure. Meanwhile, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is an imperfect process.
“Of the top 10 [causes of death] recognized by the WHO, Alzheimer’s disease is the one for which we don’t have a clear-cut diagnostic technique,” says Dr. Donald Weaver, Co-Director and Senior Scientist at the Krembil Brain Institute, who doesn’t mince words about the uphill battle dementia researchers face.
“And even if we were able to diagnose it, we couldn’t treat it.”