Alzheimer’s is a disease that exacts a tremendous personal and economic toll on the affected individual, his or her 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 hardships of family caregivers, who are often exhausted by an endless series of “36 hour” days. Moreover, Alzheimer’s disease is the only cause of death among the top ten 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 been diagnosed with the disease. Based on current projections, as many as 16 million Americans over 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.
This price tag will increase exponentially as the baby boom generation ages. If we fail to change the disease’s current trajectory, 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 forty years.
With baby boomers turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 per day, it is estimated that nearly one in two who reach age 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 this, 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 each year. This study finds that both the number of people with dementia and the costs associated with it will more than double within thirty 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. The annual death rates for these diseases are decreasing, suggesting that investments in research are, in fact, having a positive effect. Yet mortality due to Alzheimer’s disease is escalating dramatically. Surely we can do more for Alzheimer’s, given its tremendous human and economic price. While monetary investments are not a guarantee for a cure, there is little doubt that research would have a significant impact on reducing the effects 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 advances by planning clinical trials and investigating new therapeutic targets. This is a challenging disease to treat, but we have been successful with other complex disorders. 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 2015. This would be a down payment on our ultimate goal of meeting the $2 billion target over 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 rise to 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, and the Ranking Republican on the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
Ronald C Petersen, M.D., Ph.D., is the Director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and a leading expert on national efforts to address the disease.