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It's been 100 years since a German psychiatrist named Alzheimer presented a paper that described the puzzling symptoms in one of his patients. The brain disease he described is now known by his name. And today in Cleveland, experts Alzheimer's disease. Some say we've put too much hope in a cure.
NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The doctor was Alois Alzheimer. His patient, Auguste D, wasn't even old.
Professor JESSE BALLENGER (Pennsylvania State University): She was a 51-year-old woman.
SHAPIRO: Jesse Ballenger has written a history about the way Alzheimer's disease is seen in America. He's a professor at Penn State, and he says that in 1906, Dr. Alzheimer wasn't trying to understand the illnesses of old age. He was just trying to keep the practice of Psychiatry up to date.
Prof. BALLENGER: Psychiatry was falling behind. This is the age of the germ, and the rest of medicine is moving forward with much more scientific, much more biologically based ability to explain why people are ill.
SHAPIRO: Alzheimer was looking for a biological explanation.
Prof. BALLENGER: So the hope was, we will find disorders in the brain. We will understand how mental illnesses are rooted in changes in the brain.
SHAPIRO: When Dr. Alzheimer first met his patient, she had almost no memory. She was sometimes angry and disoriented. A few years later, when she died, the psychiatrist had her brain and spinal cord sent to him in a crate on a passenger train. He examined the woman's brain and found the plaques and tangles we now identify as the proof of Alzheimer's disease. Then Dr. Alzheimer presented his findings to a conference of psychiatrists. Ballenger says Alzheimer's discovery was met with a big yawn.
Prof. BALLENGER: The striking thing is how tremendously insignificant it seemed. It got virtually no attention.
SHAPIRO: Ballenger says that's because what Alzheimer found wasn't much different from what doctors already knew sometimes happen when people got old. Sometimes they develop the condition already known as senile dementia. It would be called that until the 1970s, and even the early 1980s. A change in language took place. Before Jesse Ballenger became an historian, he worked at a hospital as a nurse aide. One day staffers were told that changed the way they refer to older people with faded memories.
Prof. BALLENGER: They literally brought the nursing assistants in and said, you know, you've kind of grown up thinking about people having senility when people are confused, but they're suffering from a disease, and that disease is Alzheimer's.
SHAPIRO: Ballenger says the name change was pushed by government officials as a way to get more money for research. Better to call it a disease instead of a normal part of aging.
Prof. BALLENGER: Because it was thought that - and I think quite correctly -that you were going to have trouble selling senile dementia as an object of a large federally funded research effort, but a dread disease, you're talking now about millions of people, the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. A case is made based on that for it being of massive public health issue.
SHAPIRO: Today, there's lots of research money to look for cures and new drugs. Not everyone thinks that's the right priority. Like Peter Whitehouse. He's done some of the important research. He's a physician at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Now he's have second thoughts about all the emphasis on finding a cure.
Dr. PETER WHITEHOUSE (Case Western Reserve University): Care needs to be dominant over cure, but it's not.
SHAPIRO: Whitehouse says what people with Alzheimer's disease and their families really need is help with the day to day issues of care. He thinks a lot of the money we now put into research might be better spent in other ways.
Dr. WHITEHOUSE: There's an opportunity cost there. There are some things we can do to keep ourselves healthier as we age that have to do with those very hard issues of physical exercise and obesity and keeping a sense of purpose in life. Those things are likely to always be more effective than any biological therapy we could produce.
SHAPIRO: And Jesse Ballenger, the historian, agrees. He says if Dr. Alzheimer could come back today, 100 years after he presented his famous paper, he'd be shocked that what was once seen as a normal part of aging is now called a disease and a health problem to be solved.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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