We don’t have the scientific tools we need to stop Alzheimer’s. There hasn’t been a new drug for it approved in more than 15 years. That’s in part because it’s so hard to run clinical trials for this disease; the average clinical study for Alzheimer’s takes 4 to 8 years, versus just 1.5 years for a typical study of cardiovascular disease, and is also much more expensive to run.
For one thing, it’s difficult to identify qualified people early enough in the disease’s progression who are willing to participate. People might experience symptoms but not realize they have the disease, and simply not bother to see a doctor. Many doctors have only a limited time with each patient, and they don’t make it a priority to talk about early Alzheimer’s—especially if the person isn’t showing any symptoms.
But suppose the patient makes it to a doctor and the subject of Alzheimer’s does come up. There’s still no cheap, effective way to diagnose the disease. The definitive tests are expensive or invasive—one of them requires a spinal tap, which involves using a needle to puncture your spinal cord—and the doctor may not order them. If she does, her patient might not want to take them. Many people don’t want to find out if they have the disease earlier, because there’s no way to treat it.
As a result, we found that 80 percent of trials don’t meet their recruitment goals on time, which greatly increases the cost of running a trial for pharmaceutical companies. And of all the patients in the healthcare system who could be eligible to participate in a clinical trial on Alzheimer’s, only 1 percent actually do.