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David Hyde Pierce: Raising awareness about Alzheimer's

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine,at left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., listen as David Hyde Pierce speaks at a Capitol Hill meeting to focus attention on Alzheimer's Disease in June 2006Roger L. Wollenberg / UPI file
/ Source: NBC News

For five years, Cause Celeb has been highlighting celebrities' works on behalf of specific causes. To celebrate the anniversary, we went back to the beginning and re-interviewed our first celebrity, actor David Hyde Pierce.  

When we he had already worked with the for 10 years; now five years later, he is still hard at work for the association. The Alzheimer’s Association provides support, knowledge and awareness to those suffering from or caring for people with the disease in addition to raising money for research. On Sunday, Oct. 23, the Alzheimer’s Association will be holding the at Riverside Park and Hyde will be participating in.  

Pierce is probably best known for his role on the television show "Frasier." He has also appeared in movies including "Wet Hot American Summer" and "Sleepless in Seattle" as well as appearing in numerous Broadway shows including "Monty Python's Spamalot." Recently he made his directorial debut with the musical "It Shoulda Been You." 

Interview by Jesse Strauch

Q: What is your involvement with the Alzheimer’s Association and has it changed over the years?

Pierce: Over the years I’ve gotten more and more involved with the Alzheimer’s Association. I started out I think almost 15 years ago just showing up as a celebrity at their memory walk in Los Angeles back when I was on "Frasier" and I got more and more involved. I went to Washington and testified for more funding for research for Alzheimer’s, went around the country doing that. I became a national board member for eight years, now I’m an honorary board member. I’ve been to Washington a lot and most recently I’m a member of an advisory council that’s part of a , which is a federal law that was passed the end of last year unanimously by both houses to make the fight against Alzheimer’s a national priority in the same way that HIV/AIDS and heart disease has been.

Q: In your 15-plus years how has public perception changed towards Alzheimer’s?

Pierce: Certainly there is more awareness. I think partly because of the work of the Alzheimer’s Association, partly because there is many more appearances in the media on television and film, you start to see characters that are dealing with Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately there is a lot more awareness because there are a lot more people with the disease; there are well over 5 million now and those numbers are growing and the people who are taking care of those people numbers are growing. I would say over the years we have been making progress in research and awareness and taking care of people.  But the disease itself is making more progress than we are in the number of lives it’s taken.

Q: Do you think the future looks brighter for ending Alzheimer’s?

Pierce: I think it’s entirely up to us. If we don’t make more rapid progress than we are currently making then we’ll go from 5 million people now to 16 million people by the middle of the century, and that doesn’t account for all of the people who are taking care of those people and the stress and illness and the mortality rate of those people. It’s a particularly devastating disease for those family members and caregivers.

We have now before us a great opportunity with this National Alzheimer’s Project Act. It is an opportunity for us to confront this disease and make the kind of progress that has been made with HIV/AIDS and heart disease and cancer in the past years. Ultimately, though, it is up to us, to all of us, to the American people and to their representatives about whether we face the challenges and make all the effort necessary or if we ignore it and just let this sort of tidal wave crash over us.

Q: What would help us defeat Alzheimer’s? Are there new medicine and treatments coming or do we still need a lot of research? What would help us move forward in the best way?

Pierce: Right now funding for most major disease is in the billions of dollars. Federal funding for research, federal funding for Alzheimer’s is in the millions. Alzheimer’s at this point — this is a change in the last five years since I first talk to you guys — has advanced to become the sixth-leading cause of death in the country. So we’re in a time where people are not interested in the government spending more money and there’s great concern about the deficit, there’s great concern about health care and the cost of health care and social security, Medicare and Medicaid. All of those concerns will be effectively wiped out if we don’t focus resources, our attention and also finance resources on more research and more access.

We already know great ways to help take care of people to help make their lives easier when they have the disease and to help their family’s along but there’s an astonishing number of people in this country who have no access to this, who aren’t aware. It’s such a lonesome disease if you don’t know about the resources of the Alzheimer’s Association, the support groups and the outreach, and the referral services they have. I’m shocked that working so many years on this that it is still such an isolated disease that so many people aren’t aware of what it is and what treatment and services are available. That to me is not a huge expense. We still need billions of dollars for research. We can only fund about 25 percent of the proposals that we get now.

It’s unbelievable, we would never in a million years go to fight a war and say, "hey that’s great but we’re only going to pay for about 25 percent of it, we’ll just hope it turns out OK." But in terms of loss of life and devastation to the economy this is a war with a lot of collateral damage and I’m very hopeful that because the disease is so terrible and because it is so widespread and because we already started to make breakthroughs in early diagnosis and better care for people with Alzheimer’s, the country as a whole will start to see that there is hope and see that there is potential, that there’s a chance to turn Alzheimer’s into what polio now is. It was at one time the scourge of this country and now is a disease at least in this country we don’t really talk about or think about. That is the potential, that is the hope but as with polio we have to as a nation face it together and do what must be done.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Pierce: Just that all over the country we have the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, which is a national fundraiser that happens different times with different chapters. It raises money locally to help support services and research. It helps raise awareness, it bring people together to get information about clinical trials and the support services that are necessary. This Sunday I’m going to be doing the New York City Walk to End Alzheimer’s but I would encourage people to look for that in their area and support it if they can. You don’t have to have had someone in your family who has had Alzheimer’s to be a part of this because the sad statistics are, that you one day will, if we’re not able to slow it down or stop it.