PEOPLE'S CHOICE WINNER: Seth Rogen & Lauren Miller Rogen
Comic actor Seth Rogen and his actor/filmmaker wife, Lauren Miller Rogen, laugh in the face of adversity. That's one reason they are WebMD's 2016 Health Heroes People's Choice winners, garnering the most votes at WebMD.com for their commitment to ending the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease.
Together, the Rogens launched Hilarity for Charity in 2012 to generate awareness about Alzheimer's disease, which causes dementia and ongoing physical decline, and affects more than 5 million Americans and their extended families. Hilarity for Charity raises funds to support new research to prevent, delay, and cure it.
The condition is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Two-thirds of Alzheimer's patients are women, with an astounding 1 in 6 women diagnosed with it by age 65. Compare that to a woman's risk for getting breast cancer in her lifetime: 1 in 11.
To date, the Rogens have raised more than $5 million through Hilarity for Charity programs, including an annual variety show headlined by Hollywood's biggest names, as well as Hilarity for Charity U, which enlists 250 college campuses across the nation for students to host their own fundraising events. The group with the biggest tally wins a meet-and-greet with the Sausage Party star himself and Lauren.
So does Seth join in on the campus beer bong revelry when he hangs with the winning college kids? "No," he says, breaking out into his famous laugh. "That's why there are younger celebrities." (For the record, both Rogens have reached the ripe old age of 34.)
Lauren quickly ribs her husband of 5 years. "No offense, honey, but we sent out a survey to the top 100 college kids and none of them said they participated to meet Seth. They got involved because they had a personal connection to the disease. And we want to reach as many young people as we can and give them the opportunity to take action."
"I've been flying to Vermont for no reason, then!" he quips.
Ultimately, the Rogens are so passionate about Hilarity for Charity because they, too, have a personal connection. Lauren's grandfather died of Alzheimer's when she was 12; her grandmother died of it when Lauren was 18. Her mother was diagnosed nearly a decade ago at age 55. Now fully incapacitated, she requires professional, expensive round-the-clock care.
Her mother's condition led Lauren and her father to brainstorm the idea for another Health Heroes-worthy program. In 2015 Hilarity for Charity partnered with Home Instead Senior Care to issue grants to provide home care support for Alzheimer's disease families in need. To date, they've given away 86,385 hours of care.
"Alzheimer's is the costliest disease in the nation," Lauren says. "That's the big issue. The care is expensive and -- when someone gets advanced -- quite comprehensive. The options are bleak. A girl I knew [told us] her family had to lock her father inside their apartment during the day, because they couldn't afford quality care for him, and couldn't afford a nursing home they felt comfortable putting him in. So they literally locked him inside while they went out and made a living. They had to remove the knobs from the oven and cover the mirrors so he wouldn't cut himself. We've created something for people in dire situations so they can finally get some help."
She can't help but think of families like that one when considering her own. "My family has a front row center seat to know what's required to care for someone with Alzheimer's. But we're very fortunate. Seth is successful, and my brother's successful, and we can afford wonderful care for my mom. So many people are not in that position."
Seth personally experienced the impact of their Hilarity for Charity work when a woman approached him at a taxi stand at an airport and told him she was a recent grant recipient. She'd just gotten off a plane for a trip she was only able to take because of the care Hilarity for Charity had awarded her family.
"It really threw me," he says now. "And it showed me how the awareness we raise is great, the money is great, but actually seeing firsthand people benefiting from it ... that was really, really good."
The funny man, who rocketed to fame in the mid-2000s with such films as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad, and with more recent hits including Neighbors (1 and 2), The Interview, and This Is the End, is known for bringing levity to every situation.
Still, when it comes to Alzheimer's, it can be tough to find the humor, even if the official Hilarity for Charity website's home page shouts: "Kick ALZ in the BALLZ!"
"Organically, in life there are always moments of levity, but none can be banked on or incorporated into our message in any way," Seth says. "Very little of our humor at HFC events comes from Alzheimer's itself, if any at all. I think we're very aware that for a lot of people there's nothing funny about it."
Still, he adds, "We don't want to act like something we're not. Basically, it's an organization run by mostly people in their early and mid-30s. For whatever that's worth, we try and reflect it!"
As far as the website is concerned, the light language is also meant to both welcome and relate to millennials, a group previously underserved by traditional Alzheimer's disease organizations, whose focus is primarily on the older adults with the condition and their caretakers.
Yet so many young people either have lost a loved one to Alzheimer's or currently have one who has it. Plus, young adults must pick up the fundraising baton and charge into the future as Alzheimer's research continues to make progress.
But don't think for a moment the Rogens aren't serious about the Alzheimer's disease sea change they've helped bring about in recent years. "People are talking more about the disease now and hiding less," says Lauren, who is putting the finishing touches on her upcoming Alzheimer's documentary, This Is Alzheimer's, which she produced and which she expects to be released sometime next year.
"There's been a huge increase in [government] funding with some amazing trials out there. Alzheimer's has been cured in mice before, which means it could potentially be cured in humans, if the money was there."
When asked to name their biggest achievement, the Rogens joke how amazing it is to open their kitchen cabinets "and see Hilarity for Charity mugs. We've created something with mugs!" Joking aside, Lauren says that being able to funnel her grief into charitable work while serving as a public face to help inspire and motivate others who share her family's story is both moving and cathartic.
Still, she admits that she does on occasion quietly fall apart when no one else is around.
"My mom was diagnosed almost 10 years ago, which is a long time," she says. "And I've certainly been through many stages and emotions. It's still not easy. ... I have a wonderful therapist. I have an amazing husband who lets me cry and talk about it, and he comforts me. It's daily.
"I was fortunate to be able to go to a Barbra Streisand concert last night. But the first time I went to a Streisand concert, I went with my mom," she recalls. "When I saw her today I hugged her, and I couldn't help but cry about it a little. I told my mom how much I missed her last night."
THE ADVOCATE: Betty Ferrell, PhD, RN
In 1977, when Betty Ferrell, PhD, RN, started her career as an oncology nurse, palliative care wasn't even a blip on hospitals' radar screens. "It wasn't a part of our vocabulary," she says. Hospice was still in its infancy, and it focused solely on the terminally ill. The concept of providing symptom relief and comfort much earlier as people become ill didn't take root until the early 1990s. "Suddenly we realized what happens to patients and families when we can get their symptoms under control, when we provide social and spiritual support," she says. Recognizing that nurses are critical to the movement, in 2000 she launched the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium (ELNEC) project to teach nurses how to deliver effective palliative care.
So far, ELNEC has trained 21,000 professionals, who in turn taught more than 600,000 nurses at their respective hospitals. She's now working on a new palliative care curriculum for every nursing school in the United States. "I hope that what I've contributed to the field is a voice for nursing and a recognition that palliative care for seriously ill and dying people is whole-person care -- that is, physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. It's about what your life has meant."
THE SCIENTIST: Ed Damiano, PhD
When Ed Damiano's son, David, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 11 months old, the late-night vigils began. The slightest blood sugar variation could have been deadly. "We didn't want to overdose him on insulin or have him be exposed to low blood sugar, so we were up checking his blood sugar three times a night," Damiano says. Insulin pumps and other existing tools weren't refined enough to give David the delicate blood sugar control he needed. So his dad, a biomedical engineer, came up with a bionic pancreas that uses algorithms to monitor blood sugar and deliver insulin (which lowers blood sugar) or glucagon (which raises it) to keep the level within a set range -- similar to what a healthy pancreas does.
The bionic pancreas works equally well in men, women, children, and people of different weights, Damiano says. "Our device is totally automated, so they're not thinking about their diabetes all the time. There's this huge unburdening of worry and stress." His goal was to have the pancreas approved by the time David goes to college, just over a year from now. He thinks he'll fall short, but he hopes to get it to market by mid-2018. "I'm hopeful we'll have a device that will literally level the playing field for all who use it," he says.
THE PRODIGY: Trisha Prabhu
About 25% of young people say they've been victims of cyberbullying. In 2013, 11-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Florida was taunted so mercilessly that she committed suicide. In a Chicago suburb, 13-year-old Trisha Prabhu was shocked by the news. "I couldn't believe someone younger than myself had been pushed to take her own life," she says. "I wanted to be more than just another person who felt bad."
Prabhu, who'd been coding since age 10, developed a mobile app, ReThink, to make kids pause before posting mean thoughts online. "Our app is in the background, looking through every keystroke to determine whether what you're posting might be offensive," she says. "You get a message, and you get the chance to reconsider."
Prabhu's studies show that ReThink encourages kids to change their minds 93% of the time. She earned the Global Finalist Award at the 2014 Google Science Fair, has spoken on TED stages around the world, and was honored at the 2015 White House Science Fair.
Now 16, Prabhu plans to expand her app to computers and translate it into several languages. The student/entrepreneur is about to enter her junior year in high school. Though she hasn't settled on a college or major, she's clear on her future direction. "I'm definitely interested in and inclined to pursue something that will let me make a difference in people's lives."
PEOPLE'S CHOICE RUNNERS-UP
WebMD asked you to choose from among five celebrity advocates dedicated to making the world a healthier place. When voting closed last August, actor Seth Rogen and his wife, Lauren Miller Rogen, were the winners. But the other nominees are no less committed to and passionate about their causes. Meet them here.
CAMERON DIAZ AND SANDRA BARK
In an industry that prizes youthful beauty, "aging" is a challenging word. Actor Cameron Diaz tackles growing older head-on in The Longevity Book: The Science of Aging, the Biology of Strength, and the Privilege of Time, which she co-wrote with author Sandra Bark. Diaz doesn't dread aging; she sees it as a privilege. With a science-based approach, coupled with the personal expertise she's gained in her 40s, Diaz hopes to help other women age with grace, strength, and passion.
Few actors identify more with their characters than Anthony Anderson. Like Dre Johnson, the ad exec he plays on the ABC sitcom Black-ish, Anderson has type 2 diabetes. Anderson knows the disease is a serious matter. He's lost nearly 50 pounds since he was diagnosed 14 years ago, and he's gotten it under control in the process. Today, he spreads the message about diabetes prevention and care to inner-city kids as a spokesperson for F.A.C.E. Diabetes.
As a teenager, Padma Lakshmi endured intense pain, cramps, nausea, and fatigue every time her period arrived. Not until she was in her 30s was she diagnosed with endometriosis and finally able to manage her symptoms. In 2009, the model, author, and Top Chef host co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, which advocates for and funds research on this painful illness. Lakshmi is also an ambassador for Keep a Child Alive, which works to end AIDS and provide care to families and orphans worldwide.