By: Sumei FitzGerald
Alzheimer’s disease is the 2nd most feared disease in America. It is the foremost disease among those over 55 and among women. While Americans may fear cancer more, with cancer there is still a sense of hopefulness and the possibility of survival. This is the mindset HBO set out to change in 2009 with The Alzheimer’s Project. In partnership with the National Institute of Aging, the Alzheimer’s Association, Fidelity Investments and Geoffrey Beene, HBO set out to educate Americans about science’s advancements in Alzheimer’s, in order to “change the way Americans think about the disease, and try to counter the level of fear that is in society.”
So says producer John Hoffman who had to deal with personal demons in order to take on the project. Hoffman, who watched his father go through a long and painful battle with Alzheimer’s, was reluctant to re-visit the hopelessness and loss that he associated with the disease. He was surprised and pleased, energized and empowered by what he discovered. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar levels definitely influence your risk of getting the disease. Controlling these factors in midlife not only reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s, but delays the onset if you’re going to get it and slows the progress after you have it. Exercise can help restore brain function: it generates the growth of new brain cells, especially those concerned with memory.
Hoffman talked to over 100 doctors and researchers to gather information. Scientists say that there has been a “true explosion” of discoveries about the causes of Alzheimer’s and future treatments. As one scientist said, “We are at the brink of controlling one of the major diseases that affects world health.” Dr. Laurie Ryan of the National Institute of Aging says that there are 91 new drugs for Alzheimer’s treatment currently in clinical trials, and that these new drugs treat the underlying path of the disease. This is groundbreaking because the handful of drugs used today act on brain cells that are rapidly destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease and so quickly become ineffective. The new drugs are meant to halt that destruction altogether.
While there are just 5 million diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s disease in America today, HBO used a Harris Poll to measure the true impact of the disease. They found that 54% of American lives are touched by the disease, about 100 million.
The Alzheimer’s Project doesn’t just spotlight the scientific advancements made in Alzheimer’s research, it illustrates people’s experience of the disease and provides instruction and guidance on how to deal with it.
Maria Shriver helped produce the four films contained in the project: “The Memory Loss Tapes,” “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?” “Caregivers,” and “Momentum in Science.”
HBO created a website, a companion book, Facebook, My Space and Youtube pages for the project and a host of kits and practical guides to spread the message and educate the community.
The most impressive aspect of the project is the fact that HBO opened up its platform to make this information free, in perpetuity, to Americans. A pay-for entertainment site used vast resources to produce a public health message. HBO doesn’t have advertisers that it’s beholden to, so they can tackle any topic they want. HBO has about 30 million paid subscribers but they hoped to reach many more households by opening up their service for the original screenings of the films. They reached 8.1 million people in the first month, 700,000 people streamed or downloaded the film through free on-demand, and with advertising and guerrilla marketing, Hoffman estimates that the project made 900 million media impressions. They distributed 6,000 viewing kits and sets and helped spawn 165,000 live events in communities. These impressively huge numbers certainly make a loud statement about people’s need for knowledge and support during tough times, or even in terms learning about prevention and maintenance of health.
All of this content is free forever and the Emmy-award winning films are a true beacon of corporate citizenship and good works, a massive effort to correct perspective in Americans and move their view of Alzheimer’s disease “from hopelessness to hope.”
How to get involved
To learn more about The Alzheimer’s Project and follow links to view the films, visit the official HBO website for the film.
Sumei FitzGerald is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who specializes in health and science topics.