There is one matter on which the opposing camps agree: With each passing day, the stakes for Alzheimer's research grow higher. Over the past century, the only thing that has prevented the disease from becoming even more widespread and devastating is that most people passed away from something else before they were old enough to develop it.
Drop dead of a heart attack when you're 52, and Alzheimer's is one malady you probably won't have to worry about. But the more progress we make against our most common killers—heart disease, stroke, and cancer—and the more we extend our life spans, the greater the number of Alzheimer's cases we're likely to see. Indeed, as the 33-million-plus-strong baby boom generation enters its golden years and sees its risk of Alzheimer's increase, we are potentially looking at an epidemic. By 2010, the number of cases is expected to have increased 10 percent from its 2000 total, and from there the number is projected to more than double—to more than 950,000 new cases a year—by 2050.
"Alzheimer's has always been a big problem, but it's going to be even bigger," says Thies. "And the people who are now in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are the ones it's especially going to affect."
So what do you do if you're part of that group—especially if you tend to develop cold sores? One future option could be to have yourself tested for the APOE e4 gene—though Wozniak isn't a fan of that idea. "It would just cause a lot of worry for the person involved and his or her family."
Another possibility might be to take an oral antiviral drug preventively—essentially, to attempt to keep the herpes virus in check before it can do any damage to your brain. The hitch here, however, is that no clinical trials have ever evaluated the safety of taking a daily antiviral, such as Valtrex, for longer than a year. Plus, the average physician would consider the link to Alzheimer's too tenuous to let you play guinea pig.
In the end, the best option may simply be to wait, and hope. When I ask Wozniak whether he and Itzhaki feel like they're running out of time, he says, "Of course. We are all getting older. Our parents are getting older. Soon we'll all be affected one way or another by Alzheimer's disease...if we haven't already."