Las Vegas Sun

August 29, 2014

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Where I Stand — Guest columnist Larry Ruvo: Defeating Alzheimer’s

Editor's note: In August the Where I Stand column is turned over to guest writers. Today's columnist is Larry Ruvo, founder of the Keep Memory Alive foundation, an organization created to help identify the cause and develop a cure for Alzheimer's Disease. Ruvo also provided funding to the University of Nevada School of Medicine for the development in Las Vegas of the Lou Ruvo Alzheimer's Center.

None of us is spared the tragedies of life. At some point each of us must deal with the sadness, frustration, helplessness and devastation with which life's deadly diseases and afflictions challenge us.

And when we do, we become better people because we help make life better not only for our loved ones but for our neighbors, friends and countless others on this planet.

I became involved with the fight against Alzheimer's because this disease robbed me of my most important friend, my father. When my father first started showing signs of Alzheimer's, he was diagnosed, after numerous trips to many doctors, with having clotted arteries and heart problems. After numerous painful spinal taps, I was told he was having a blood-flow problem. I just knew that none of this was true.

A mutual friend referred me to Dr. Leon Thal, one of the leading experts on Alzheimer's problems in the United States. After the initial interview, Dr. Thal immediately diagnosed my father with Alzheimer's. Those were the early days of Alzheimer's research and my father's death was slow and very, very sad. Today I know a great deal about this horrible disease. And, while I am in no way an expert on Alzheimer's and brain aging, I remain, along with a great number of Las Vegans and close friends of mine, committed to this fight. Let me share with you some information regarding Alzheimer's.

Our public health officials emphasize the devastating impact Alzheimer's disease (AD) will have on our society. They point out that, due to the increased longevity of our population, the United States will see a 44 percent increase in the number of individuals with AD by 2025, affecting close to 8 million Americans. Closer to home, the greatest increase in cases will occur in the Western region of the country, with the number of Nevada citizens with AD doubling over the next 20 years.

The burden this impending epidemic will place on our country is staggering. National direct and indirect annual costs of caring for individuals with AD is estimated to be at least $100 billion. Systems of care, such as residential and day-care facilities, will be strained. Medicare and Medicaid expenditures for beneficiaries with AD are expected to rise substantially.

But what is lost in those numbers are the personal tragedies: the tragedy of having one's memories, accumulated over a lifetime, gradually stripped away; the tragedy of watching someone you have loved and admired slowly losing their powers of thought, language and often their personality; the tragedy that comes with caregivers having to sacrifice to provide needed care, often at the expense of family disruption, financial loss and depression.

Yet, there is a reason for optimism. Our understanding of AD has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 15 years. We have characterized the abnormal problems that are commonly thought to trigger the brain cell death seen in AD.

We have also uncovered the genetic influences that lead to AD, developed promising means for early detection and formulated medications that provide symptomatic benefit.

Given adequate resources, the goal of delaying onset or preventing AD is an achievable scientific objective for the research community over the next decade. Advances are likely to come from the coordinated efforts of university-based research centers throughout the country. With the creation of the Lou Ruvo Center for Alzheimer's Disease and Brain Aging, Las Vegas will become an important site for those research efforts.

The Lou Ruvo Alzheimer's Center may be named after my father, but without the help of so many great friends and fellow Nevadans, this building would never be built. The governor and the Nevada Legislature have earmarked more than $800,000 to support the scientific aims of the center. Mayor Oscar Goodman and the Las Vegas City Council have provided the land at the gateway of the downtown redevelopment for the facility, which will be designed by internationally acclaimed architect Frank Gehry. Faculty from the University of Nevada School of Medicine, along with other talented scientists recruited from within Nevada and throughout the country, will direct the clinical and research activities. An advisory board of world-recognized experts in Alzheimer's disease has been retained to provide guidance. On this team are Drs. Leon Thal, chairman of neurology at the University of California, San Diego and a pioneer in therapies for AD, and Zavon Khachaturian, former head of Alzheimer's ! disease research at the National Institutes of Health and past director of the Nancy and Ronald Reagan Institute.

Through further investigation I have learned that there is a similarity between Parkinson's, Huntington's and Alzheimer's diseases. As a result and at the insistence of Gehry and Drs. Khachaturian, Thal and Charlie Bernick, the Lou Ruvo Alzheimer's Center, in addition to treatment for Alzheimer's, will have a foundation and treatment center for Parkinson's and Huntington's as well.

What has brought Nevadans together on this project is their vision of not only how the Ruvo Center will participate on the national research stage but more importantly, how it will be of value to our community. It will provide state-of-the-art diagnosis and care for individuals and families dealing with AD and other disorders of brain aging such as Parkinson's and Huntington's Disease, regardless of their ability to pay for services.

It will offer residents of Nevada the opportunity to access new treatments and technologies in development. It will serve as a hub of education about the brain for our schoolchildren, student physicians and lay public. It will foster collaborative efforts among our local academic institutions. It will act as a catalyst for the creation of an academic medical campus in Las Vegas.

And through the fund-raising activities of the Keep Memory Alive foundation, headed by Lynette Boggs-McDonald, the Ruvo Center will have the ongoing resources needed to develop all of the above.

Keep Memory Alive started at a small dinner party with friends to say goodbye and to toast my father's life. I am proud to say, with the great number of celebrity chefs, friends of the wine world, Hollywood stars and entertainers who will be on hand, Keep Memory Alive's fund-raising event, which will be held on Saturday, Feb. 11, at the MGM Grand hotel, will be hosted by chefs Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Mario Balali. This fun-filled memorable event will help finance the Lou Ruvo Alzheimer's Center.

A small dinner with friends has grown into a large, exciting, fun-filled event that will provide Nevadans the opportunity to have great medical treatment within our state, eliminating the need to leave Nevada to care for loved ones who become ill.

But perhaps more profoundly, the Ruvo Center and projects like it, such as the Nevada Cancer Institute and the Performing Arts center, represent the maturation of Las Vegas as a city. These endeavors reflect the efforts of our community leaders to improve the quality of life for all Nevadans. By fostering creativity in spheres such as medicine, art, business and technology, Las Vegas will become known not only as an international tourism destination but as a richly diverse area to live.

I look forward to the day that Alzheimer's disease can be prevented and when receiving that diagnosis will not be viewed with hopelessness. I believe with the work of research centers like the Ruvo Center and its supporters, that day will soon arrive.

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