Despite advances in diagnosis, the number of Alzheimer's cases will triple by
2050, with the cost of care skyrocketing to $1 trillion a year, according to
experts speaking this week at a seminar in Washington.
Alzheimer's Association CEO Harry Johns speaking to journalists. (RedwoodAge)
Already, 5.3 million Americans have the fatal disease, according to
Alzheimer's Association CEO Harry Johns, who offered a grim outlook at the
seminar sponsored by the National
Press Foundation. An additional 11 million Americans care for dying
relatives and friends, with many of the caregivers sacrificing jobs because of the
time they devote to the task.
Even so, Alzheimer's remains a much misunderstood disease and receives far
less research funding than other deadly diseases. The US provides $469 million a
year to investigate Alzheimer's compared to $6 billion for cancer, $4 billion
for heart disease and $3 billion for AIDS. Yet, Alzheimer's kills more Americans
each year than prostate and breast cancer combined.
"There's nothing good I can say about this disease," said Johns,
whose mother succumbed to Alzheimer's. "And there's not that much I can say
good about what's been done at the federal level up to this point. The federal
government has failed to provide leadership in what needs to be done about
Alzheimer's disease. There's no question about that."
The association claims Alzheimer's gets less support because it remains a
"hidden" disease, much like cancer was viewed for much of the past
century. The attitude towards cancer changed over the past 25 years,
particularly after former first lady Betty Ford announced to the world that she
had breast cancer. Ronald Reagan died from Alzheimer's but was shielded from the
public after his diagnosis.
"I know of families myself where family members believe a loved one has
[Alzheimer's] but they have not pursued a diagnose," he said. "We see
denial as one of the biggest impediments for us in moving forward. It's at the
family level, it's at the community level, it's at the congressional
Unlike cancer or heart disease, where risk factors are well known, the onset
of Alzheimer's is unpredictable. There are some genetic links, but those cases
are the minority. Scientists have searched for decades for ties between the
disease and environmental factors such as air pollution or diet, but the cause
remains unclear and a cure elusive. Existing treatments can help some patients
live more normal lives, but don't extend life.
The first symptoms usually surface late in life. About half the people who
survive to 85 will die of Alzheimer's, though their deaths are often attributed
to other causes like organ failure or pneumonia. The disease creates plaque
around brain cells, spreading until it shuts down all bodily functions,
typically over a period of a few years. What starts with foggy memories, winds
up as a 24-by-7 nightmare that lasts until death.
Families in Crisis
About 70 percent of Alzheimer's patients are cared for at home, mostly because
their families cannot afford the care in a specialty hospital that can easily
top $100,000 a year. Medicare will cover treatment, but won't cover long-term
"There is, of course, a point where they cannot handle the care that is
required because it is just so difficult," said Johns. "Caregivers
wind up giving virtually every measure. They give up time at work. They
ultimately give up jobs or lose jobs because of the time they're giving as
caregivers. They spend their own money. They lose their own health."
If one member in a couple develops Alzheimer's, the surviving spouse usually
ends up in poverty, having spent their combined savings on treatment.
Already, the US spends $172 billion a year just to treat Alzheimer's
patients, most of it through Medicare or Medicaid. About one in six dollars
spent on Medicaid goes to Alzheimer's patients, who on average generate nine
times the costs as the average Medicaid patient, according to the nonprofit Alzheimer's
The costs will soar to $1 trillion by mid-century, without adjusting for
inflation, as life expectancies increase, baby boomers drift into their sunset
years and health costs rise, according to estimates presented at the conference,
which received financial support from Pfizer and the Lawrence B. Taishoff
By 2050, the accumulated costs of caring for Alzheimer's patients will total
about $20 trillion - about $2 trillion more than entire the American economy.
"As more and more people live longer, we'll have more people at risk,"
said John Rother, AARP's executive vice president for policy, strategy and
international affairs. "And we'll have more burden on the family, more
burden on the couple in terms of their financial standing, as well as the
caregiving stresses, and more burden on our health care systems - state and
local - particularly in trying to keep up with the health needs of people who
are Medicaid eligible because they've spent down [their savings] and because
these are such extremely expensive places to care for people."
Johns noted there have been significant advances in finding ways to diagnosis
the disease, but a widely available method is still years away. Drug companies,
including Pfizer, are eagerly seeking cures that may net them billions in new
revenue. But all trials to this point have ended in disappointments.
AARP and the Alzheimer's Association both see difficulties in getting more
public support to find a cure or better treatments for the disease, particularly
in today's gloomy economic environment. Congress is currently looking at ways to
cut programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to help fight the
"Given all the other problems we face in healthcare, and the expense of
our healthcare system, it seems like a real challenge to take away money... and
focus it on a disease that at least right now does not have a cure," said
At the very least, the Alzheimer's Association is hoping to stimulate a
broader public conversation about the disease and it's costs.
"At the top of our list to make things happen is getting the public to
understand these things so that there is a public discussion about
Alzheimer's," said Johns. "We need to mobilize those people because we
have not had the discussions about Alzheimer's that we've had about