Google the term “miracle of modern medicine” and in less than a second, 1.51 million results appear at your fingertips. Videos, blogs, podcasts, articles; the Internet is filled to the brim with reflections on the life-saving achievements of the last 100 years.
There’s no mystery behind our faith in modern medicine. From Polio to HIV, as children of the 20th century, time and again we have seen science’s amazing ability to tackle diseases. As result, we’ve come to believe that scientists are gradually and constantly driving us towards longer, healthier, and happier lives.
That’s why it was so stunning to learn recently that in 2015, the United States experienced the first uptick in its death rate in more than a decade, as discovered by researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Proof of the miracle of modern medicine exists all around us. Over the last several decades, our accomplishments as a scientific community have been incredible: Between 1973 and 2010, deaths from heart disease declined by 61 percent across the US; by 2050, we have a chance to eliminate cancer deaths for people under 80; and, thanks to antiretroviral therapies, in places like Ethiopia and South Africa the AIDS-related death rate has plummeted by more than 50 percent since just 2005.
This begs the question: With all of these incredible advancements, in the world’s most prosperous nation, how did more people die last year than in 2014? The answer is that we have long neglected an important medical frontier: the brain.
While heart disease, stroke, and cancer are all contributing to fewer deaths than they did a generation ago, three factors are driving this uptick in American mortality: overdose, suicide, and Alzheimer’s disease. These killers have one thing in common: they begin between the ears.
The sad fact is that we have not treated mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, or addiction like the ruthless killers they are. While we’ve likely all been touched in some way by the tragedies of overdose and suicide, due to stigma, tens of millions of individuals suffer in silence, and from a systematic standpoint, we still treat mental illnesses like second class diseases.
Similarly, while Alzheimer’s disease now afflicts more than six million Americans and ranks as our sixth leading cause of death (and the only top 10 cause of death without a cure), today, we are spending a fraction of the money on Alzheimer’s research that we dedicate to cancer and other deadly disorders.
Lundbeck is among the only global pharmaceutical companies solely focused on brain disorders. It is hard work, gripped by unique challenges, and at times a lonely pursuit. For instance, while most tumors can be biopsied, blood can be tested for HIV, or cholesterol can be routinely monitored, the brain is very difficult to study in a live state. As an example, in Alzheimer’s disease, often only an autopsy can truly confirm a diagnosis. For this and many other reasons (such as our lack of biomarkers for brain diseases, and the presence of the blood-brain barrier that guards against drugs’ arrival), therapies to treat brain disorders take significantly longer to get approved, cost more to develop, and fail at a higher rate than compounds intended for other areas. But the unmet need is staggering and the work is so important.
The truth at the heart of the miracle of modern medicine is that there’s no miracle at all. There’s no accident to how we’ve rolled back heart disease and cancer, or to the amazing progress we’ve made with HIV. It simply comes down to smart, committed people coming together with the resources and public support necessary to get the job done. As we turn our sights more towards the brain and the exceptional challenges it poses, the level of commitment and effort required will be more intense than ever before. I hope we quickly find the will it is going to take to tackle these disorders. It’s a matter of life and death.