George Vradenburg of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s: “Each turned out to be incorrect”

Leaders focus on a set of goals on which there is broad consensus, and then enable people to work together to join their talents and energy to find the way to solutions. Leaders are servants, allowing and empowering others. We serve people. In our case, we are serving those families suffering from the experience of […]

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Leaders focus on a set of goals on which there is broad consensus, and then enable people to work together to join their talents and energy to find the way to solutions. Leaders are servants, allowing and empowering others. We serve people. In our case, we are serving those families suffering from the experience of Alzheimer’s.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing George Vradenburg of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s.

George is Chairman of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, which he co-founded in October 2010. He was named by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to serve on the Advisory Council on Research, Care, and Services established by the National Alzheimer’s Project Act and has testified before Congress about the global Alzheimer’s pandemic. He is a member of the World Dementia Council. He and UsAgainstAlzheimer’s co-convene both the Leaders Engaged on Alzheimer’s Disease (LEAD) Coalition and the Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer’s Disease. With his wife Trish (1946–2017), George has long been a dedicated member of Washington’s civic and philanthropic community. George served as Chairman of The Phillips Collection for 13 years and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and The Economic Club of Washington. He has served in senior executive and legal positions at CBS, FOX and AOL/Time Warner. George and Trish published Tikkun Magazine for 10 years.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My wife’s grandmother and mother died of Alzheimer’s Disease. My wife, Trish, wrote a play — Surviving Grace — about her family experience, a comedy and drama produced at the Kennedy Center and then off-Broadway in 2000. As a result of the publicity around the play, the Alzheimer’s Association asked us to host a National Alzheimer’s Gala in Washington, D.C. The gala, which ran from 2003 to 2009, while a fundraising event, was designed to engage Members of Congress to focus more attention and resource around the disease and to spark action to combat it.

Through these efforts, I came to work with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to create the Alzheimer’s Study Group — consisting of 10 prominent American leaders who recommended the adoption of an Alzheimer’s strategic plan for the United States. This, in turn, was followed by the introduction and enactment of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act and, subsequently, the issuance of a National Alzheimer’s Plan, which set a national goal of effectively treating and preventing Alzheimer’s by 2025. In those days, the Alzheimer’s Association took the lead in those efforts while my wife and I acted as patient advocates and as political donors and supporters.

By 2010, my wife and I decided that we wanted to step up our personal efforts by building our own patient-led non-profit with the mission of preventing Alzheimer’s.

In 2010, my wife and I, with two friends, started UsAgainstAlzheimer’s — initially as a lobbying organization and a political action committee and subsequently as a 501c3 non-profit — to stop Alzheimer’s. Our focus has been on the need for greater urgency and broader public-private collaboration to find paths to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer’s.

That work has expanded over the years to include the convening of a patient-led global corporate roundtable of major pharmaceutical and biotech companies with Alzheimer’s programs, the incubation and spin-off of a North American clinical trials support platform, a brain health partnership to develop a non-pharmacological approach to Alzheimer’s prevention, intense advocacy and action networks of African-Americans, Latinos and women to address racial and gender disparities in Alzheimer’s and, most recently, a global initiative called the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative in partnership with the World Economic Forum.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The most interesting story? A call I received from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in late 2019 to ask us if we would like to partner with them to create a global organization to eradicate this disease, much like WEF had done in the past with different infectious diseases. WEF recognized that Alzheimer’s Disease was a public health crisis of pandemic scale and decided that they wanted to partner with our Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer’s to create a world-wide initiative — the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative. My wife and I and just two other families started this effort in 2010 and now, just 10 years later, the World Economic Forum and its network of world leaders across the globe wanted to partner with us. That was not just interesting, it was pretty exciting.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A funny/interesting story: In our first national gala, we auctioned off a glass of Washington, D.C. water — straight from the tap — and received 10,000 dollars for it. Our pitch: it’s not the object that’s important, it’s the cause. Then the winning bidder let us keep the glass of water. So, the following year, we put the water in a carafe and auctioned it off as “vintage” and it raised 25,000 dollars for Alzheimer’s. That showed me that people respond to the cause, not the object.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

UsAgainstAlzheimer’s and its progeny now include a clinical trials network to speed cures, a global roundtable of the companies which are trying to eradicate this disease, a world-wide organization to include all countries in research, an initiative of over 185 organizations to develop a goal and strategy to develop non-pharmacological interventions to prevent Alzheimer’s.

When we started UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, one of our first initiatives was to reach into the Black and Latinx communities to include them in clinical research and in efforts to cure the disease. We also focused on gender disparities in the impact of this disease; and now we are working world-wide to include the 90% of the populations of the globe who are not of European ancestry and who have not been included in Alzheimer’s research.

We are constantly running towards the hardest problems in the battle against Alzheimer’s and we are consistently and constantly fighting above our weight class. The impact of our efforts is evidenced in the sheer number of people and organizations that want to partner with us.

Importantly, our advocacy efforts have resulted in increased investment in Alzheimer’s research at the National Institutes of Health from 440 million dollars a year in 2010 to more than 3 billion dollars a year today.

At the heart of our impact is the fact that we are families who have experienced and continue to experience this disease. We have elevated the voice of the patients — particularly from underserved segments of communities and societies — as well as caregivers and other supporters. Alzheimer’s is a family disease, and we feel a responsibility to represent all of those families.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We have had many great champions in Congress over the years, but some particularly stand out — unfortunately due to common shared experiences of having family members who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. Some of the notable champions include Senators Roy Blunt, Susan Collins and Ed Markey. Over the years, they have been joined by many others. Congressional support has truly been bipartisan and bicameral.

A member of my board, Greg O’Brien, experienced early-onset Alzheimer’s, and I would like to think that his voice has made a big difference in the awareness of this disease, that we have helped amplify and extend that voice and that doing so has given him confidence that is making a difference in his life. He is an example of numerous individuals whose voices we have amplified and whose anger at this disease has been turned to purposeful and impactful action.

Alzheimer’s has had a multi-generational impact in my family, with three generations affected by this disease over 40 years. I would hope that my work will have reduced the chances of this disease affecting my children and grandchildren.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, we need greater levels of investment and resources to fight Alzheimer’s around the world. Most of the genetic research over this disease has been done among European legacy populations, which do not properly represent the 90% of world’s population which are not European. So, governments around the globe must partner with each other and with other sectors of society to advance a global research and healthcare infrastructure not just better to understand this disease but to bring future therapies to populations at scale.

Second, we need more citizen participation in clinical trials around the world and robust government support for innovative clinical trial mechanisms.

Third, greater awareness. Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) — the umbrella group for national Alzheimer’s associations and societies around the world — recently completed a comprehensive survey, which found that two-thirds of the respondents thought that dementia is a natural result of aging, not a disease. This is a serious problem and a misunderstanding. More strikingly, two-thirds of clinicians around the world believed that there’s nothing to be done about the disease. That has to change.

Finally, we need to transform our health systems from treating a disease after it occurs to anticipating a disease and preventing it. This is going to take a transformation in the way we think about our health systems, and to do this, governments and health providers — public and private — can make a huge difference by changing their way of thinking.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leaders focus on a set of goals on which there is broad consensus, and then enable people to work together to join their talents and energy to find the way to solutions. Leaders are servants, allowing and empowering others. We serve people. In our case, we are serving those families suffering from the experience of Alzheimer’s.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I’ll start with three things that were told to us when we started UsAgainstAlzheimer’s. One, that we will never get the U.S. government and Congress to disproportionately allocate funds to address one disease. Two, that we will never get all of the organizations with an interest in Alzheimer’s disease to work together. And three, that science moves at science’s pace and can’t be accelerated. Each turned out to be incorrect.

Now, as for the things that I wish someone had told me; first, I wish I had been told how hard it is to change ‘business as usual’ and how culture and ways of thinking stand in the way of change. Second, I wish I had been told how patient advocacy can be such a catalyst for change and why. It took me a while to learn that patient advocates can be trusted to be neutral drivers of change. There’s a sense of tribalism and closed-mindedness in sectors, professionals, organizations and nations — even on issues that are broadly viewed as shared problems. To successfully fight this disease, we need to be open to new approaches, new perspectives and new solutions and ways to collaborate.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have been most stirred over the last five to 10 years by the increased movement for racial justice, so I must say, if there is one thing, it is: why can’t we engender mutual respect and trust and share the desire to help our fellow humans? So, what would satisfy me the most is actually a movement that brought people together and allowed us to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us.

I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to create a movement to eradicate Alzheimer’s, whether I can do that as a philanthropist, whether I can do that as a servant leader, or whether I can do that through whatever national or international mechanisms. That is going to be my goal in life for the 50 million families that have been touched by this disease, a number that will triple by 2050.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Theodore Roosevelt said, “it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” For me, the main lesson is that we have to find a way to get in and shake things up to try to achieve something.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would like to have had breakfast or lunch with Lee Kwan Yew (who unfortunately passed away in 2015) and with the Pope.

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