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Facing the Challenges of Alzheimer’s Disease

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Dear Readers:

I recently returned from the Aging in America conference, presented by the American Society on Aging.

One of the most compelling, enlightening and disturbing sessions was on Alzheimer’s disease.  Part of my mission for today’s column is to increase awareness of the challenge and potential crisis that will face us as a nation and as individuals when it comes to the condition.  

Alzheimer’s is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. Eventually it robs victims of their judgment, identity and dignity to the point where they can no longer care for themselves.

Let’s begin with a true-false quiz about Alzheimer’s:

1. Alzheimer’s  Disease is part of normal aging.   True or False

2. Most people with AD live at home.  True or False

3. Alzheimer’s disease is relatively inexpensive compared to other diseases.  True or False

4. Drugs can stop the progression.  True or False

5. If you live to 85, there is less of a chance to get AD.  True or False

Answers:

1.  False. Alzheimer’s disease is not part of the normal aging process.  It is a disease that involves degeneration of nerve cells in the brain.

2.  True. A little more than half of AD patients are cared for in the home.  Almost 75 percent of the care is provided by family and friends.

3.  False. This is a very expensive disease for the Federal government, families and the community.

4.  False. There has been no drug, so far, that can stop it. However, there are reports that certain drugs can slow the disease process. (The Alzheimer’s Association, however, says there are no known ways to slow its progression.)

5.  False. The bad news is that almost one out of two people age 85 and older suffer from dementia, predominantly Alzheimer’s disease.

Here are some additional facts reported by the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S.  It is the only cause of death among the top 10 in America with no known prevention or cure or ways to slow its progression.
  • Today, 5.4 million Americans are living with the disease.  By 2050, as many as 13 million to 16 million will be victims.  Of those over age 65, one in eight has AD and nearly half of those 85 and older have it.
  • The disease strikes women more than men; 3.4 million, almost two-thirds, are women.
  • Another American develops the disease every 69 seconds.  In 2050, that will become every 33 seconds.
  • Most survive four to eight years with Alzheimer’s disease. Some survive as along as 20 years.

The cost is prohibitive.  In 2011, the cost for caring for AD victims will total approximately $183 billion.  That is $11 billion more than last year. Unless something is done, the cost in 2050 will be $1.1 trillion (in today’s dollars.)

This year, the National Institutes of Health plans to spend about $6 billion on cancer research, about $2 billion on heart disease, $3 billion on AIDS and only $450 million on Alzheimer’s disease.
Ken Dychtwald, well-known thought leader, gerontologist and CEO of AgeWave – a company that consults with businesses on age issues –  noted in a recent conversation I had with him that our nation will spend $20 trillion between now and 2050 on Alzheimer’s disease if we do not prevent or find a cure for the disease.

Furthermore, he said, “This disease is the most horrific and pandemic disease facing our aging nation.  We need to know that there are geniuses out there ready to solve the problem. They just need funding.”  And, he added, “We have the disease 10 years before showing the first symptom.”  Dychtwald  believes that Alzheimer’s disease is the “social and economic sinkhole of the modern era.”

And then there is caregiving.  There are 15 million Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers in the U.S., providing 17 billion hours of unpaid care annually, valued at $202 billion.  Because of the physical and emotional toll on these caregivers, they incurred an additional $7.9 billion in health care costs in 2010.   These caregivers are unsung heroes.

Does the political will exist to fund research on the cause or causes of Alzheimer’s disease, ways to prevent it and finding a cure?  It took almost 10 years of a sustained investment to create the anti-retroviral therapies that have made AIDS more manageable.  It took Jonas Salk about six years to develop the polio vaccine.

If we could postpone Alzheimer’s disease by just five years, a large proportion of nursing home beds would be empty.

According to Dychtwald, we need to exert pressure on our political leaders and the scientific community to beat this disease.   I fully agree.

Note: On Jan. 4, President Barack Obama signed into law the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, which will create a strategic plan that will be submitted to Congress. Evaluation of federally funded efforts and the creation of an advisory council on research, care and services are part of the law.

Hopefully, funding will follow.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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