John Blackburn (not his real name) first began to think there was a problem with his brain at age 52, while he was renovating the bungalow he shared with his wife in Leicester, England. He took a measurement, and by the time he walked to the next room, he’d forgotten it. He took the measurement again, deliberately focusing this time, but he just couldn’t hold the figure in his head. He had never experienced anything like it before. His wife had noticed his forgetfulness too. “I found it hard even having a conversation,” he says.
John was referred to a memory clinic and then a neurologist. Scans showed his brain was shrinking, and in October 2014 he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Today, Alzheimer’s affects 5.5 million Americans and 47 million people globally. Its signature ‘neurofibrillary tangles’ and ‘senile plaques,’ made of a toxic protein called amyloid-beta in the brain, are poorly understood but thought to disrupt communication between neurons and interfere with proper brain function.
Alzheimer’s erases personalities and robs patients of their memories, their independence and their lives. It is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Today, if you live beyond the age of 85, your odds of facing the disease are 50/50.1And its prevalence is predicted to soar—affecting more than 150 million people by 2050.
At best, the currently available drugs can only temporarily manage symptoms. According to the prestigious Mayo Clinic, “Alzheimer’s drugs don’t work for everyone, and they can’t cure the disease or stop its progression. Over time, their effects wear off.” They have side effects, too. Namenda (memantine) can cause nausea and vomiting, confusion and hallucinations, for example. Aricept (donepezil) is linked to nausea, tremors, stomach ulcers and seizures.
And despite countless clinical trials of ‘promising’ new drugs, no new drugs have been approved for Alzheimer’s disease since 2003.
John knew the treatment odds for his diagnosis were zero, but he was certain why he was losing his mind, and he thought this was key to fixing his problem. For 26 years he had worked building aluminium railway cars. “The shop I worked in was called ‘Death Bay.’ You couldn’t see from one end to the other because it was so filled with aluminium dust.” The huge bay housed at least two dozen welders and numerous machines to grind and buff the aluminium carriages, and there was no extraction filter.
“You could see the aluminium particles shining in the air, and our overalls were covered in very fine dust,” he recalls. “We were eating the stuff. It made your skin black, and you couldn’t scrub it off.”