Every 68 seconds someone in America develops Alzheimer’s disease – a devastating and irreversible brain disease that slowly destroys an individual’s cognitive functioning, including memory and thought. Kansas City physician Dr. Richard Padula and his wife, Marta, had been married for 51 years when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006. It is difficult to imagine the anguish Dick, Marta and their family and friends experienced as he deteriorated from a leading heart surgeon into someone unable to comprehend a newspaper article. Unfortunately, these heart-wrenching stories have become all too common.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association 2013 Facts & Figures, Alzheimer’s currently affects more than 5.2 million people in the United States and more than 35.6 million worldwide. As the population ages, the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after age 65 will double every five years, while the number of individuals 85 years and older with this disease will triple by 2050. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and there is currently no cure, no diagnostic test and no treatment for this terrible disease.
As a nation, we must commit to defeating one of the greatest threats to the health of Americans and the financial well-being of our country. In 1962, President Kennedy called our nation to action to reach the moon by the end of that decade. We must strive to achieve not only an effective treatment, but a cure for Alzheimer’s over the next decade. President Kennedy’s words still ring true today – we should choose this endeavor, “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win . . . ”
On Wednesday, we will hold a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee on the impacts of Alzheimer’s – both economic and personal – and the state of current research initiatives. It is critical to confront the pending health care crisis and financial costs as the baby boomer generation ages. Caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is expected to cost $203 billion this year, with $142 billion covered by the federal government through Medicare and Medicaid. A study by the RAND Corporation stated that the cost of dementia care is projected to double over the next 30 years, surpassing health care expenses for both heart disease and cancer. Without a way to prevent, cure or effectively treat Alzheimer’s, it will be difficult – if not impossible – to rein in our nation’s health care costs. Alzheimer’s has become a disease to define a generation, but if we focus and prioritize our research capacity, it does not need to continue as an inevitable part of aging.
It is time to truly commit to defeating this disease in the next decade – a goal no more ambitious than the goal set forth for the Apollo space program. For every $27 Medicare and Medicaid spends caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s, the federal government spends only $1 on Alzheimer’s research. Yet, research suggests that more progress could be made with a boost in investment. One study found that a breakthrough against Alzheimer’s that delays the onset of the disease by five years would mean an annual savings of $447 billion by 2050.