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'Still Alice' is raising awareness about Alzheimer's disease

People often go to the movies to escape their problems. In the case of “Still Alice,” many are flocking to the theaters to see their lives’ biggest struggles writ large.

Based on the novel of the same name, “Still Alice” tells the story of a brilliant linguistics professor who develops a rare type of early onset Alzheimer’s disease that robs her of her memory and her life as she knows it.

Unlike other films depicting the struggles with Alzheimer’s, “Still Alice” presents the disease from the patient’s point of view. Many movie critics find this significant artistically. To me, it’s almost a breakthrough medically.

By putting the audience inside the declining mind of the person struggling with the disease, the film forces us to confront Alzheimer’s head-on, rather than from the watching-through-our-fingers distance we too often use when it comes to dementia.

Thousands of patients and family members have offered online reviews raving about the film’s unblinking perspective on Alzheimer’s disease. It is as though the film turned the release valve for people who have been craving more than the nihilism we normally associate with Alzheimer’s. The very real medical information discussed in the film represents information they can use.

With all the Oscar buzz surrounding the film, “Still Alice” is also a springboard for what I hope will be a new conversation about Alzheimer’s. At present, I would characterize the nation as an ostrich that has buried its head in the sand because of fear of the disease. But promising scientific research has found that proper lifestyle changes and risk factor management can delay the onset of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s by as much as 15 years and dementia by 20 years. We just need to get our heads out of the sand and see it.

Currently, most people who develop Alzheimer’s will experience their first symptoms at age 55 and dementia by ages 70 to 75. With early identification and proper treatment, we can push that out to age 70 for first symptoms and the onset of dementia out to ages 90 to 95, making it possible for someone to live our their entire lives without experiencing dementia.

But this requires an honest approach to the disease. We have to, like Alice, confront our fears head-on and fight. People with family histories of Alzheimer’s should consider genetic counseling, while everyone over 45 could benefit from annual cognitive assessments, such as the free online tool offered by Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute’s Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program,

I have some patients with the biomarkers — the molecules in the brain that indicate Alzheimer’s — who have seen me for decades and have no symptoms yet. By monitoring them yearly, we can detect them at the earliest stages to begin or alter treatment.

For patients who already have symptoms of the disease, new treatments in clinical trials are stabilizing the condition, stopping its progression. In the real world, individuals are experiencing these benefits. It is possible.

In concert with a national movement, we have implemented the Roadmap to Prevent Alzheimer’s by 2025 as a population-based program for all of Orange County, using recommendations and tools that are in line with the scientific research being done in this area.

In other words, there is hope for an escape from this horrific reality. And as long as we approach it honestly and fearlessly, we don’t have to go to the movies to find it.

WILLIAM R. SHANKLE leads the Judy & Richard Voltmer Endowed Chair in Memory and Cognitive Disorders at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.