Roughly one year into the COVID-19 public health crisis, we are learning many lessons to prevent future crises. That should include ones we can see coming as our society ages, like the growing prevalence and overwhelming impact of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Stopping Alzheimer’s by 2025 was a goal set by G7 leaders at the 2013 Dementia Summit. To keep working toward that goal, leaders in the fight against Alzheimer’s gathered last week in Switzerland for the annual Lausanne Dialogs.

Since the 2013 summit, our team at Eli Lilly and Company has taken part in these discussions about the fight against Alzheimer’s. My colleague Marybeth Howlett was part of the planning committee for this year’s meetings, called Lausanne VII. The committee helped keep this
critical international dialog going virtually, in spite of the pandemic. And Lilly’s Vice President of Pain and Neurodegeneration, Mark Mintun, provided keynote remarks. He noted how encouraged he is by how far the field has come and remains hopeful for the future of Alzheimer’s disease treatments and diagnostics.

For more than 30 years, Lilly has been committed to Alzheimer’s disease research and development to bring innovative Alzheimer’s disease therapies and diagnostics to patients who need them most. Although a medicine has not yet demonstrated a proven effect against Alzheimer’s in clinical trials, the scientific advancements have been tremendous, with the first potentially disease-modifying treatment being evaluated by a regulatory agency right now.

At the same time, there’s more work to do. We need policy changes to support the ongoing research by the biopharmaceutical industry and to help transform our healthcare systems around the world to help people with dementia get the best care today and the most benefit from future innovations.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder and, therefore, key to both goals is earlier detection and diagnosis. Even before an approved therapy, earlier detection opens the
opportunity to participate in clinical trials, increasing the speed of a breakthrough that slows the progression of the disease. Earlier detection can also shift brain health to a prevention mindset—much like the approach to heart disease—helping reduce future Alzheimer’s cases by as much as one-third with better habits like more exercise and sleep, and less sugar.

But our healthcare systems need to evolve to match recent scientific advances. While researchers are developing therapies that fight Alzheimer’s during the 10-to-20 year period in which the disease is active in the brain but no symptoms have appeared, our current healthcare systems still treat Alzheimer’s after it becomes impossible to ignore—often long after. That approach is suboptimal for today’s patients and slows down tomorrow’s progress.

We need collaboration across the world to identify and share best practices to screen and diagnosis patients before their dementia starts to hamper their thinking, functioning and identity. European countries can help accelerate both the development of new treatments and the pace of health system transformation by taking steps in these key areas:

  1. Adopt, and commit to implementing, national plans specifically dedicated to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

  2. Promote collaboration between member states and exchange of best practices related to healthcare system readiness and improved practices for prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care.

  3. Mandate baseline cognitive testing that recognizes the importance of the brain as the vital organ that it is and integrate advanced diagnostic tests into clinical practice as part of a diagnostic algorithm.

  4. Dedicate funding to health and social affairs as well as research and innovation, while continuing to support a strong system of intellectual property protections.

COVID-19 has shown us how quickly our healthcare systems can be overwhelmed by a public health crisis. However, it has also shown us what we can accomplish when we work together around the globe. And while Alzheimer’s disease isn’t coronavirus in its speed, rest assured, it is as deadly. Ensuring our healthcare systems are prepared to enable patients to benefit from advances in detection, diagnosis and treatment of dementia requires public authorities to act now.