The topic of Alzheimer’s disease has always been a personal one for CNN.com Health producer Elizabeth Landau. Her grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s, and the effects of her disease took a toll on Landau’s entire family. Landau’s grandmother passed away in 2007, and Landau has been interested in reporting on Alzheimer’s research ever since.
Landau earned her master’s in journalism from Columbia University before starting out with CNN as a Master's Fellow in 2007. She returned in 2008 after interning for Dow Jones and writing for law360.com, and was promoted to CNN.com health writer in June that same year. In May, she participated in the NPF program Alzheimer’s Issues 2011, which focused on ethical issues, global aging and the personal cost to care-givers.
What drew you to health reporting?
In general, everyone should be concerned about their own health. Are they eating right? Are they exercising their bodies and minds? That’s always something that interested me. The topic of Alzheimer’s in particular was always dear to my heart because my grandmother had it and died from it in 2007. To watch her go from this very intelligent woman to having trouble walking and speaking was just heartbreaking. So health has always been my main area of focus at CNN.
How long have you been covering Alzheimer’s?
I guess since I became a health writer in 2008. We have all these studies that come out that say we may have found a gene that is associated with it, or they’re in a certain stage of the clinical trial for a drug. The bigger picture is that this is still a mysterious illness. With the huge cost to patients and caregivers, it’s really important that research picks up.
In one of your articles you mention the stress and illness caregivers face, which isn’t something you usually hear about. How did you decide to report on this side effect of the disease?
My grandfather took care of my grandmother for a long time. The stress that it had for him was really eye-opening in terms of what effect being a caregiver has. There have been a lot of reports in the last few years of the huge financial and health burden of taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s. As [NPF Alzheimer's Issues] seminar experts stressed, you know it does require 24-hour vigilance. Patients can get up and wander away at any time, they often don’t have standard sleeping schedules, and they can fall down. That was also a big topic at the NPF seminar.
Are there other under-reported sides of Alzheimer’s?
I feel like people don’t appreciate that it is a fatal illness, that it is not part of normal aging, and that not enough research is being done on treatments or a cure. A lot of people think this won’t happen to them because they don’t have a family member with it. Our population is getting older, and older people have a higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s. More and more people, if they’re not going to experience it directly, will start knowing more people with it.
You did one story on a study that found a Mediterranean diet could reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s. Those studies come out all the time—do you ever feel as if researchers are overreaching?
The important thing to keep in mind is the difference between correlation and causation. Many studies find associations between particular behaviors and disease, but there’s no proof that behaving in a certain way actually causes a change in disease risk. That’s the main thing all scientific journalists should keep in mind. You can take a group of people and say they are all eating this way, but there’s no way to prove that because they all ate more olive oil they have less risk of Alzheimer’s.
How do you filter what studies to report on?
Several times a year there is something about diet and Alzheimer’s in the major journals, and a lot about genetics and Alzheimer’s. You sort of have to look at how any particular study was done. Obviously if there were more people participating in the study, like in the hundreds or thousands, the results are more significant than if they were looking at only twenty people. The sample size is definitely important. We try to point these things out in CNN.com articles, that if we report on something with a small sample size then you should take its findings with a grain of salt.
Where do you see Alzheimer’s research going?
Researchers are definitely working toward identifying patients as early as possible. Also, using mild cognitive impairment as an opportunity to test out drugs that aren’t working out on later-stage patients because the disease has already damaged the brain too much. In people who only have minor impairment, who are still aware of their surroundings but are starting to have some difficulty remembering or thinking, researchers may have the largest opportunity to intervene. One day many decades from now we may be able to identify people that are somehow predestined to have Alzheimer’s, and perhaps they will be able to be treated before they ever become forgetful.
How have your personal medical experiences influenced your reporting?
My concussion from a few weeks ago is the most recent and most major example where something that happened to me in my personal life became a story on CNN.com. I also have food allergies – I am allergic to nuts and certain types of seafood, so I always try to keep up with research on that. Scientists are looking at the possibility of immunizing people or desensitizing them from foods they can’t eat.
On the flip side, how has your reporting influenced your personal life?
With my concussion I found myself reading more articles about concussion than I ever would have in the past. I’m only three weeks out and the other day I had a terrible headache, so I turned to medical research for possible explanations. Also, I have definitely become a lot more active in the last two years. I run a lot more now. One recent story we did was on how sitting for long periods of time can shorten your life span, which is scary. So I know the importance of taking a break when you need one, to stand up and stretch and get a glass of water.
You’re constantly writing for a national audience. How do you make sure your reporting hits home with your readers?
Alzheimer’s has no geographic boundaries. It is definitely a global issue. Any story related to it, even if it’s focused on one person in one place, is going to have relevance. Any Alzheimer’s story is inherently a national story, as well as international.
Did you go into the NPF conference looking for something specific? What did you walk away with?
I wanted to learn more about where we are in finding a cure or a treatment, and that program definitely did a great job in exploring ways they are developing drugs for Alzheimer’s. I actually never appreciated how difficult it is to study, and how little we know about Alzheimer’s. The program really taught me that there is a lot more that needs to be done. In terms of funding, there is a big disparity between Alzheimer’s and other diseases like HIV/AIDS. More research dollars are needed to take the study Alzheimer’s to the next level.
How are you planning to continue your Alzheimer’s coverage?
I just interviewed a gentleman with mild cognitive impairment. This is the population that might bring the most benefit to research, where they don’t have full blown dementia but still have symptoms that suggest something is wrong. So the story is about what life is like for that person and what is the effort to use people with these symptoms in clinical trials.