U.S. can’t afford not to invest in Alzheimer’s research

Advocates for the Alzheimer’s Association made a push in Congress this week for more funding for research. They based their argument on the costs of Alzheimer’s. This disease, which causes so much pain for patients and their families, also threatens the nation’s financial health.

According to the association, the total health care cost of caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s will be $214 billion this year, with Medicare and Medicaid paying $150 billion of that. Almost 20 percent of everything the federal government spends on Medicare is spent caring for patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

As the baby boomers age and as costs of care increase, the numbers become truly scary. By the middle of this century, overall annual medical costs for Alzheimer’s and other dementias are projected to rise to $1.2 trillion.

More than five million Americans now have Alzheimer’s – 200,000 of them under the age of 65. It is the country’s sixth leading cause of death. About 52,000 Arkansans have it – 8,000 of them between the ages of 65-74, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Progress has been made in recent years with other diseases – most notably AIDS, which was a certain death sentence a couple of decades ago until it became a national priority. Between 2000 and 2010, deaths attributed to HIV fell 42 percent. They also fell for stroke, heart disease, prostate cancer and breast cancer.

But deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s increased 68 percent over that same time period. While five approved drugs will treat the symptoms for 6-12 months in half the patients, there’s no cure, no long-term effective treatment, and no means of prevention.

Congress did increase funding for research by $100 million this year, which was a good start. However, for every $1 that the National Institutes of Health now spends on Alzheimer’s research, Medicare and Medicaid spend $265 on patient care, and it’s often not the kind of care that prolongs productivity or enhances quality of life. We’re warehousing a lot of people.

The Alzheimer’s Association says that, if the onset of Alzheimer’s could be delayed five years, the national costs of care would be cut by half. It’s asking for another $200 million for research, which is a significant increase in this kind of budgetary environment. On the other hand, it’s less than the cost of two of the Pentagon’s proposed 2,400 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes – a weapons system that, as “60 Minutes” recently reported, is $163 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.

Alzheimer’s is a clear and present danger. If we’re truly worried about America’s future, couldn’t we get by on 2,398 planes and use the savings from the other two to fund Alzheimer’s research? If not, I’m betting we can find $200 million somewhere in the federal budget.

None of this, of course, is taking into account the human toll Alzheimer’s takes on individuals and their families. Alzheimer’s is a particularly villainous disease. It robs individuals of their golden years, when they still have work to do and wisdom to offer. The mental decline can be rapid, but the physical death can stretch into decades. For loved ones, the long goodbye can be an almost unbearable mix of exhaustion, distraction, grief and guilt.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Americans mobilized for action. The same occurred when the Russians beat us into space.

Alzheimer’s is that kind of threat. Discovering a cure would be a gift to the world. Find the $200 million.

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