Alzmageddon?

It’s been called a rising tide, a flood, a landslide, and an avalanche. Now, it seems there are just no words bad enough to describe how drastically the upward slope of Alzheimer’s prevalence may affect us – not just as people, but as a nation.

Right now, more than 5 million Americans have the disease. In 2004, caring for those patients cost Medicaid $19 billion – almost as much as the $23 billion the agency paid to cover all its other claimants. By 2050, there will probably be 19 million Americans with Alzheimer’s – a 280% increase. Footing the bill will cost  trillions, according to Harry Johns, the president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Advocates from the Alzheimer's Association stormed Capitol Hill this week to lobby for more federal spending on Alzheimer's research. Photo courtesy of the Alzheimer's Association.

Unfortunately, that estimate only represents federal dollars for hospitalizations and long-term care costs. Many Alzheimer’s patients have private insurance that covers at least some of these expenses. And most are cared for at home by relatives – 11 million relatives in 2009 – who lost out on work time and racked up their own medical bills from stress-related illness.

Do the math and you’ll find nearly 42 million Americans caring for someone with Alzheimer’s by 2050. No one knows how that will affect earnings, savings, spending, mortgages, and even the overall health of the  economy. The costs of Alzheimer’s will multiply exponentially, until they “threaten to completely overwhelm the national healthcare system,” Mr. Johns told  me at a Congressional panel meeting on Alzheimer’s.

He and several dozen association representatives are on Capitol Hill this week lobbying hard for the long-suffering Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Act, which would boost research spending to $2 billion. Now in its fifth incarnation, the bill has never made it out of committee – and given the current economic and political climate, lobbying must seem like a Sisyphean task.

But if the trajectories are right – if millions of aging Baby Boomers survive cancer, HIV, diabetes, and their own advancing years only to succumb to Alzheimer’s – Americans and America will face a struggle like no other in history. And right now, there’s no way to stem the tide – no strategy to prevent the disease’s onset, no vaccine to protect us from it, no pill to halt its progression.  After a long string of drug failures, hopes were pinned on Dimebon, the Russian antihistamine that seemed to delay and even reverse memory loss. But Dimebon failed a pivotal phase III trial last week, leaving just four drugs in phase III trials – a pretty small arsenal with which to fight Alzmageddon.

Want to get educated on the topic? Check out the Alzheimer’s Association’s newest report:  2010 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures

Michele Sullivan
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Filed under health reform, IMNG, Neurology and Neurological Surgery, Uncategorized

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