By Jill Draper
In the 62 years since Alan Forker first entered medical school, he’s seen a full slate of new options in treating heart disease, cancer, ulcers and other common ailments. The results have been astonishing, says the retired cardiologist and diabetes researcher.
“We’ve come so far, some things seem like miracles,” he says.
Dr. Forker will speak about these advances and touch on future innovations being developed at 10 am, Oct. 23, through SPARK, a UMKC-affiliated program for older adults.
Heart disease is way ahead of cancer as the number one killer in the United States, according to Forker, who mentions clot-dissolving drugs, balloon catheters and better heart valve replacements as contributors to major health gains.
He adds that rheumatic fever, a longtime culprit in damaging heart valves, mostly disappeared with the discovery of antibiotics. And now aortic valves that become calcified and rigid with age can be replaced at a cardiac catheterization lab instead of through open heart surgery.
“We’re doing them in 90-year-olds,” he says.
Diabetes is another condition with a better outlook than in earlier decades. He cites “exciting new data” that treats Type 1 as an autoimmune disease, and notes that researchers are in the early stages of doing pancreatic transplants. Meanwhile, synthetic human-like insulin has greatly improved treatment of Type 2, which used to rely on insulin made from cows and pigs. And Type 2 patients who lose weight often can achieve complete remission, he says.
Speaking of weight, he points to major changes in approaches to obesity. He was taught that it’s a behavioral problem, but now obesity is being looked at as a disease that can be treated by new drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy, originally used to lower blood sugar levels in diabetic patients. Scientists found the drugs also suppressed appetite, resulting in weight loss.
Another new drug that’s creating a buzz, Leqembi, was approved last July for treating the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Forker’s first wife died from Alzheimer’s, so he understands the excitement. But it’s only for early, mild dementia, he cautions. And it won’t cure the disease, only slow it down.
Still, he observes, “At one time we said the same thing about using chemo and radiation for cancer. Now we’ve come so far that we can say certain cancers, like acute lymphocytic leukemia in childhood, can be cured.”
Major advances also have been made in treating breast and testicular cancer, while remedies for other types, like lung and pancreatic cancer, lag behind. “We still haven’t found the basic cause of these yet.”
Forker identifies the biggest unknown part of the body as the brain. “Obviously, it’s very difficult to do research on,” he says. But it’s something he finds both challenging and stimulating. “If I was a young medical student today, I might pick psychiatry as a specialty. It’s a field that has a way to go.” He notes that people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can function normally with drugs, but “we’re still in the Dark Ages with them compared to heart and diabetes treatment.”
When it comes to alternative approaches to medicine, he’s skeptical but open. He does give talks about the world’s Blue Zones—areas where people have the highest life expectancy. The only one in the U.S. is Loma Linda, California, home of a large Seventh-day Adventist community whose members usually follow a plant-based diet. Other Blue Zone factors include regular exercise, strong social connections and maintaining a purpose in life.
Forker, 85, lives in Leawood with his second wife and follows many of the Blue Zone practices, but values the importance of pets (he has two cats) and music (he sings in a church choir and plays piano) as well. He also enjoys reading, including four different medical journals to keep up with the news.
He’s presenting his talk, “Advances in Medicine,” as a member of the Retired Physicians Organization of Kansas City, an interest group of the KC Medical Society Foundation. He was chief of cardiology at UMKC and director of the Lipid and Diabetes Research Center at St. Luke’s Hospital, among many other achievements.
The SPARK (Senior Peers Actively Renewing Knowledge) Flossie Pack Center for Lifelong Learning has been providing education for those 55 and older since 1993. The center offers lectures, book clubs, lunching out and local tours. Class topics include history, current events, art, literature, music and health. SPARK will celebrate its 30th Anniversary on Thursday, October 19, at 4 pm with an open house at their office at 4825 Troost followed by a reception at 800 E 51st St. See more at lifelongspark.org.