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HBO's 'Alzheimer's Project' series explores the disease

Maria Shriver is an executive producer of the four-part series on the daily lives of patients, caregivers and loved ones, and recent scientific breakthroughs.

May 10, 2009|Gina Piccalo

In "Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?," which debuts Monday, a bubbly 8-year-old girl tries to engage her disoriented grandmother. Eventually, her grandmother grows angry and orders the sobbing girl out of her room. Later, her older sister assures the girl she did nothing wrong.

In "Caregivers," debuting Tuesday, a grown son out for a walk with his 82-year-old father with Alzheimer's has to stop to pull up his father's pants that have fallen to his ankles. In another vignette, a woman who had divorced her husband welcomed him back into her life and became his primary caregiver when he was diagnosed at 54 with early-onset Alzheimer's. And in "Momentum in Science," a two-part film airing Monday and Tuesday, five of six siblings in the DeMoe family learn they have a genetic mutation that causes early-onset Alzheimer's and though science has no cure for them, they commit to an ongoing study in the hope that the findings will help future generations.

But "The Alzheimer's Project" represents a greater commitment than a few stirring documentaries. It's co-presented by the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, a partnership that guaranteed producers would have access to the most cutting-edge research and the scientists overseeing it.

In "Momentum in Science," scientists note that there have been more dramatic advancements in understanding the disease in the last two decades than took place in the preceding 80 years. In the last five years, scientists gained the ability to diagnose early-onset Alzheimer's using brain imaging.

Other new research suggests that the disease may be delayed or even prevented by exercise, maintaining healthy blood pressure, broad social networks and intellectual stimulation into old age. There's even an Alzheimer's vaccine in the final stages of clinical trials.

"We are on the brink of controlling one of the major diseases affecting world health," says Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, in the film.

HBO sees the series as a sort of privately funded public health campaign. To reach the estimated 150 million Americans whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's, HBO is distributing the series in unprecedented ways.

Viewers can stream or download the series for free -- as audio or video -- from HBO.com. The cable network is also distributing 5,000 screening kits to nonprofits nationwide. The NIH will make screenings of the series available to its members.

"Alzheimer's could cripple the United States if someone doesn't figure out how to deal with it," said Nevins. Producing the HBO series, she added, gave her hope.

"It was invigorating to know there could be something on the horizon to, if not prevent, at least extend the length of time from diagnosis to incapacitation."

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calendar@latimes.com

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