Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention Overlooked
By Sen. Susan Collins and Dr. Ron Petersen
Alzheimer’s disease is a terrible disease that exacts a tremendous personal and economic toll on the individual, the family and our society. There is no more helpless feeling than to watch the progression of this devastating disease. It is equally painful to witness the emotional and physical damage inflicted on family caregivers, exhausted by an endless series of “36-hour” days. Moreover, Alzheimer’s disease is the only cause of death among the top 10 in our nation without a way to prevent it, cure it, or even slow its progression.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. At the time, fewer than two million Americans had Alzheimer’s; today, more than five million Americans have the disease. Based on current projections, as many as 16 million Americans past the age of 65 will have Alzheimer’s disease by 2050.
In addition to the human suffering it causes, Alzheimer’s costs the United States more than $200 billion a year, including $142 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid. That price tag will increase exponentially as the baby boom generation ages.
If we fail to change the current trajectory of Alzheimer’s disease, our country will not only face a mounting public health crisis, but an economic one as well. If nothing is done to slow or stop the disease, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that Alzheimer’s will cost the United States an astonishing $20 trillion over the next 40 years.
With baby boomers turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 persons per day, it is estimated that nearly one in two of the baby boomers reaching 85 will develop Alzheimer’s. As a consequence, chances are that members of the baby boom generation will either be spending their golden years with Alzheimer’s or caring for someone who has it. In many ways, Alzheimer’s is the defining disease of this generation.
If we are to prevent Alzheimer’s from becoming the defining disease of the next generation, it is imperative that we dramatically increase our investment in Alzheimer’s disease research.
According to a study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s and other dementias cost the United States more than either cancer or heart disease. That study finds that both the costs and number of people with dementia will more than double within 30 years, skyrocketing at a rate that rarely occurs with a chronic disease.
At a time when the cost to Medicare and Medicaid of caring for Alzheimer’s patients is $142 billion a year, we are spending less than $500 million on Alzheimer’s research. We currently spend $6 billion a year for cancer research, $3 billion a year for research on HIV/AIDS, and $2 billion a year for cardiovascular research, all worthy investments. Surely we can do more for Alzheimer’s, given the tremendous human and economic price of this devastating disease.
The annual death rates for those other diseases are decreasing, yet mortality due to Alzheimer’s disease is escalating dramatically, suggesting that the investments in research are, in fact, having an effect at curbing those disorders.
While monetary investments are not a guarantee for a cure, there is little doubt that research would have a significant impact on reducing the impact of this disease.
The fact is, there is promising research in the pipeline that holds great hope for Alzheimer’s patients and their families. The research community is poised to make important contributions toward the treatment of this disease through clinical trials being planned and by investigating new therapeutic targets.
This is a challenging disease to treat, but we have been successful with other complex disorders. With Alzheimer’s disease, we have no choice but to attack it at now with both public and private partners coalescing efforts to eradicate the disease.
We do not want Alzheimer’s disease to be the disorder of our children’s generation as well.
The National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease was authorized by the bipartisan 2010 National Alzheimer’s Project Act, which has as its primary goal, to “prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease by 2025.” To meet that goal, the public members of the Advisory Council created by the legislation say that we will need to devote $2 billion a year to Alzheimer’s research.
We are therefore calling on the president and Congress to double the amount we currently spend on Alzheimer’s disease research in FY 2015. This would be a down payment on our ultimate goal of meeting the $2 billion target during the next five years.
Finding a way to effectively prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease by 2025 is an ambitious goal. But the stakes are simply too high for our nation not to pick up the challenge.
Susan Collins is the senior senator from Maine, co-chair of the Senate Alzheimer’s Task Force, co-author of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act as well as the ranking Republican on the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Ronald C Petersen, M.D., PH.D, is the director of the Mayo Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and leading expert on national efforts to address the disease.