Actress advocates for public health measures to fight 'insidious, cowardly' Alzheimer's

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“The battle against Alzheimer’s is a battle we must win,” actress Marcia Gay Harden told the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “If we don’t, it will cripple our nation.”
“The battle against Alzheimer’s is a battle we must win,” actress Marcia Gay Harden told the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “If we don’t, it will cripple our nation.”

Public health measures related to Alzheimer's got a boost Tuesday from the testimony of actress Marcia Gay Harden at a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing focused on what she called “an insidious, cowardly disease.”

Harden, whose mother, Beverly, has Alzheimer's disease, advocated for passage of the Building Our Largest Dementia (BOLD) Infrastructure for Alzheimer's Act, which was written by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), chairman and member, respectively, of the Aging Committee and introduced in November.

“Endorsed by the Alzheimer's Association, the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer's Act would create an Alzheimer's public health infrastructure across the country to implement effective Alzheimer's interventions and focus on important public health issues, such as increasing early detection and diagnosis, reducing risk and preventing avoidable hospitalizations,” she said.

Collins provided specifics.

“Our legislation would establish Centers of Excellence in Public Health Practice, dedicated to promoting Alzheimer's disease management and caregiving interventions as well as educating the public on Alzheimer's disease and brain health,” she said.

The act also would “help public health departments take key steps, including education, early diagnosis, risk reduction, care management and caregiver support” and would “direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand its data collection of cognitive decline, caregiving and health disparities,” Collins added.

Among the act's 35 sponsors are Aging Committee Ranking Member Bob Casey (D-PA) and members Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Casey said the bill is “an example of the type of bipartisan cooperation that we need now more than ever. It is my hope that the voices of our witnesses here today — and the voices of those of you in this room today — will help us get this bill to the president's desk.”

Harden's appearance before the committee was not the first time the body has harnessed star power to generate attention for Alzheimer's research funding and related issues. The approach has brought Maria Shriver and David Hyde Pierce to testify before members in recent years; family members of both had dementia.

Harden, who was honored in March at the Great Minds Gala held in conjunction with LeadingAge's PEAK Leadership Summit, said fear that she or her children may end up with Alzheimer's and anger about the disease's physical and financial effects have motivated her to educate herself and the public about the importance of early detection and ways to promote brain health.

“Watching my mom forget herself and her many contributions to life — it pisses me off,” she said. “So my siblings and I do what my father taught us to do — we ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps' — never mind that we wear high heels. We know what he meant.”

The actress shared with senators her firsthand knowledge of the disease, from the time in 2005 when her mother first started exhibiting symptoms to her 2011 diagnosis to today. Harden said her mother no longer remembers accompanying her daughter to the Academy Awards in 2001; her husband, who died in 2002; or other people and milestones in her life. The actress recently wrote a book about the experience titled “The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Flowers.”

“The battle against Alzheimer's is a battle we must win,” she said. “If we don't, it will cripple our nation. ...We must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. We must do our duty to the American people and fund and fight this battle, and we will win.”

Also testifying at the hearing were Lisa C. McGuire, Ph.D. who leads the Alzheimer's Disease and Healthy Aging Program within the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion; Teresa Osborne, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Aging; Gareth R. Howell, Ph.D, an associate professor at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, ME; and Cheryll Woods-Flowers, a family caregiver.

Watch the hearing on the committee website.

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