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

May 10, 2009 |  3:00 am
AlzheimersAlzheimer's disease doesn't leap to mind as a subject likely to draw many TV viewers, much less draw them for a four-part series. But it's tough to turn away from HBO's exhaustive and bracing look at the illness through the lives of people enduring it and the scientific breakthroughs that could change everything.

"The Alzheimer's Project" marks the third time HBO Documentary Films has made a focused attempt at public health education. In 2000, there was the Peabody Award-winning series "Cancer: Evolution to Revolution," followed by the "Addiction" series in 2007.

About 50 million people accessed the "Addiction" series via TV, the Internet and a companion book, series producer John Hoffman said, a number that HBO executives considered staggering. So producers quickly looked for other health issues that might warrant a series that could fill gaps in public health education and help raise money for scientific research.

"The question was where is there a need?" recalled Hoffman, who helped produce all three series. "Where is there hope in the public health area, but where is there a lack of knowledge? And it kept coming up that Alzheimer's was the area where great advances were being made, and at the same time we had a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety."

"The Alzheimer's Project" debuts tonight with the film "The Memory Loss Tapes," which features seven patients in various stages of the disease. Joe Potocny, a 63-year-old computer genius, blogs through the onset of Alzheimer's disease, noting wryly that he helped invent DVDs and now gets lost in his own front yard. Yolanda Santomartino, 75, lives in a nursing home and befriends her own reflection, believing it to be a new resident named Ruth.

HBO filmmakers gained access to the world's top Alzheimer's researchers and to families during some of the most vulnerable periods of their lives, even capturing the death of 77-year-old Cliff Holman, a retired Alabama TV show host.

"I thought of it as short stories about forgetting," said HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins, executive producer of the series. "To me that show was really a lesson in caring if nothing else and oddly not as depressing as everyone expected it to be. The love of some of these people is quite extraordinary."

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(Photo courtesy HBO)