Innovation During the Coming Epidemic of Memory Impairment

MGH Russell Museum 3

The Museum of Medical History and Innovation in Boston

I just finished reading How to Defeat Alzheimer’s, a May 28, 2013 article in the Los Angeles Times. The article, by David Shubert, PhD, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, reminds readers of the vast number of boomers who will experience memory impairments (14 million in 2050) at the end of their lives, requiring extensive medical and caregiving support. No cure is in sight, not even that many hopeful signs for possible cure, and research is not keeping up. Dr. Shubert offers some “out-of-the-box” ideas to move along the study of dementia diseases.

As a member of the sandwich generation — I have a married adult daughter and aging parents — I am aware of the challenges that Alzheimer’s and dementia may present for my parents, for my generation, including me, and for young adults who will likely observe a fair number of their relatives passing through various stages of brain impairment. Yet, with so many people moving inexorably toward dementia illnesses, the situation also offers an opportunity for researchers to learn more than ever before and get answers to at least a few of the unanswered questions. The boomer generation may become a sentinel cohort that helps medical researchers find some answers to Alzheimer’s.MGH Russel Museum 1

This past year I thought a lot about unexpected opportunities that can help researchers and physicians discover answers to medical problems and puzzles when I visited the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation in Boston. The museum, connected with Massachusetts General Hospital, focuses on how medical innovations and improvements come about over time and often after great adversity.

The most interesting exhibits described how scientists and physicians, while coping with tragedies, wars, or epidemics, are able to learn from the events and from their patients — gaining new knowledge, developing better treatments, improved care, and even solving problems that seemed unsolvable. As I explored the modern and airy museum, every exhibit demonstrated just how much can be learned when things go wrong.

MGH Russell Museum 2

The roof of the museum offers cool breezes, herbs, and flowers, even on a warm day.

I discovered, for instance, how much physicians learn each time an influenza epidemic occurs and how, as a result of the  horrific Coconut Grove nightclub fire many years ago in Boston, doctors advanced burn care. Exhibits explained how war injuries lead to more understanding about brain injuries and how doctors with patients who experience great pain often seek innovative ways to help lessen the agony.

After several hours perusing these and many other exhibits, I realized just how much information researchers glean when large numbers of patients experience the same medical condition — exactly what is going to happen when boomers begin to experience the symptoms of brain impairment.

In his LA Times article, Dr. Shubert offers a number of out-of-the-box ideas for raising money for research.  The sheer numbers of people who at risk for developing dementias will offer the best motivation,  opportunity — and a lot of data — to help researchers figure out ways to treat or even stop these diseases.

A museum exhibit noted, “Out of devastation often comes innovation that pushes the frontiers of medicine faster and further.”

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