Fundamental Health Reform: Investing in Alzheimer’s Research

Posted September 21, 2009 at 1:52pm

As Washington searches for ways to pay for health care reform, one investment opportunity, with potentially huge returns, has been overlooked. It’s Alzheimer’s disease. That is, investment in the research needed to stop it. No other disease causes so much suffering, is so certainly fatal, affects so many, and drives so much cost with so little spent to overcome it.[IMGCAP(1)]Anyone who has experienced Alzheimer’s by watching the unrelenting, year-by-year deterioration of a loved one knows all too well its devastating nature. While it often appears as limited memory loss, the disease progresses to greater confusion, loss of personality, and ultimately to the loss of all bodily functions and death.We have no treatment that will stop or even slow its development. Although science continues to progress, the treatments we desperately need now haven’t materialized from the extremely low current funding levels for Alzheimer’s research. Exciting scientific opportunities are being delayed with great risk of much higher costs to come. Our federal government has simply not made research investments that match the impact of this disease.The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.3 million people currently have Alzheimer’s in America, with about 10 million caregivers supporting them. Someone develops the disease every 70 seconds. If we don’t stop it, as many as 16 million individuals might have the disease within just 40 years, including 10 million baby boomers. Official federal statistics recognize that Alzheimer’s now kills as many people as diabetes, and more than breast and prostate cancers combined. This is true today, even though it is widely acknowledged that Alzheimer’s deaths are grossly underreported, and decades before the number of Americans with the disease reaches its peak.If the suffering caused by Alzheimer’s is not enough reason for the federal government to make sufficient investments in stopping the disease, the costs driven by the disease certainly should be. The Dartmouth Center for Health Policy Research has calculated that Medicare beneficiaries with Alzheimer’s cost three times more than beneficiaries without dementia. For people with the other major chronic diseases and Alzheimer’s, costs are also multiplied. We will all bear the burden of these higher costs.The Alzheimer’s Study Group, an independent panel co-chaired by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), with other prestigious members including Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, recently found that those with Alzheimer’s will cost taxpayers $20 trillion in Medicare and Medicaid costs over the next 40 years. If we correctly thought that one stimulus bill costing $787 billion was mind-boggling, the study group’s finding suggests that what we’ll pay for Alzheimer’s, if we don’t find a way to stop it, will equal 25 stimulus bills over the next four decades.So why hasn’t sufficient investment been made in Alzheimer’s research? Ignorance, age discrimination, stigma, denial? One explanation often offered in Washington is that leaders cannot single out any one disease for investment. However, significant, strategic investments have been made in coronary disease, HIV/AIDS and cancer to the benefit of all Americans. Elias Zerhouni, the immediate past director of the National Institutes of Health, has shown that for an annual investment of $3.70 per person in coronary disease, mortality has decreased by 63 percent, with a return on investment calculated to be $2.6 trillion. Thirty thousand AIDS deaths have been prevented each year because of an investment of just $5 per person per year. And, for cancer, he showed in 2006 that survivorship had reached 10 million and that for the first time since being recorded, annual cancer deaths had actually fallen after 30 years of annual investments equaling $8.60 for each American.Thanks to a new reporting system required by Congress, we now know that Alzheimer’s-specific research at the National Institute on Aging is just $428 million. That’s an investment in Alzheimer’s equal to about $1.39 per person in America. Considering the tens of millions of people who will suffer from Alzheimer’s over upcoming years and the projected trillions of dollars we’ll all bear in Medicare and Medicaid costs, the current investment level is simply far too low.Time is against us. However, Congress has an immediate opportunity to act. The Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Act (S. 1492 and H.R. 3286), introduced by Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would authorize $2 billion in funding for Alzheimer’s research and introduce other changes that would expedite the development pipeline. The magnitude of the nation’s existing and escalating Alzheimer’s crisis means the failure to adequately invest cannot continue. Passage of the Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Act would be a significant step toward scientific opportunities that could stop this terrible disease before its full impact strikes in the years just ahead.Harry Johns is president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association.