Don Campbell, USATODAY 4:36 p.m. EDT September 16, 2013
The National Institutes of Health spends more on HIV/AIDS even though more Americans are living with Alzheimer’s.
(Photo: Jym Wilson, USA TODAY)
From 2000 to 2010, deaths of people with Alzheimer’s skyrocketed.
By 2050, the disease could cost Medicare and Medicaid $1.2 trillion a year.
The search for a cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s requires a harder-nosed pursuit of money.
This country is famous for waging health-related “wars” — a war on cancer, a war on smoking, a war on HIV/AIDs, a war on obesity.
It’s time we launched a serious war on Alzheimer’s disease. Right now, we’re pursuing a “national plan to address” Alzheimer’s, passed by Congress two years ago. It’s a timid plan, having produced a lot of bureaucratic boilerplate but only a paltry increase in federal funding for research into the insidious disease.
It includes a goal of being able to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s by 2025, but without the means to achieve that goal. Why is it so difficult to get the war launched?
Robert Egge, vice president of public policy for the national Alzheimer’s Association, quotes the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose daughter said she had Alzheimer’s: To successfully mount a political strategy, “first you win the argument, then you win the vote.”
In order to win spending arguments today, you have to contend with a political climate of lawmakers obsessed with federal budget deficits and cutting spending. Yet, because a large part of our economic problems are tied to surging health care costs, the argument for an exponential increase in spending on Alzheimer’s research, now a meager $484 million a year, is multifaceted but simple:
From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of deaths in the U.S. from cancer, HIV/AIDs and cardiovascular diseases declined, some sharply, while deaths of people with Alzheimer’s skyrocketed. The numbers reflect the money spent by the National Institutes of Health on research. For example, this year NIH is spending nearly seven times as much on HIV/AIDs as it is on Alzheimer’s, though there are five times as many people with Alzheimer’s as with HIV/AIDs.
‘Most expensive malady’
A New England Journal of Medicine report last spring showed that Alzheimer’s is “the most expensive malady in the U.S. … exceeding that for heart disease and cancer,” Egge says.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates it costs Medicare three times more to care for someone with Alzheimer’s than for someone without the malady. Medicaid spends 19 times as much. By 2050, the disease could cost Medicare and Medicaid $1.2 trillion a year.
There’s a stigma attached to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia that must be overcome, despite a few admired figures having become a public faces for the disease: Ronald Reagan, former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, singer Glen Campbell.
There’s age discrimination. “We tend to live in an ageist society,” says Eric VanVlymen, executive director of the Miami Valley Alzheimer’s Association in Ohio. Only 4% of people with Alzheimer’s are younger than 65, but nearly half of those 85 or older have Alzheimer’s in a country working tirelessly to extend lives.
There’s an emotional and financial impact on families. “The devastation it does to a family is slow, and it’s long, 10 or 15 years of losing a person you care about,” VanVlymen says. Typically, a family starts out sharing the burden of providing care for the loved one. Then they might hire in-home care attendants, or move Mom or Grandpa into a private Alzheimer’s facility. Only the rich can afford that for long. A private facility can cost $50,000 to $75,000 a year — or more. Eventually, many end up in nursing homes where Medicaid — meaning you — foots the bill.
All of our problem
You may have the attitude that if you don’t have Alzheimer’s in your family, or know anyone who has it, it’s not your problem. Wrong. As long as Medicare and Medicaid remain solvent and you are among the shrinking percentage of people who pay federal taxes, it’s your problem, too.
The Alzheimer’s Association does good work with the resources it has, holding countless “awareness” walks each year and counseling families dealing with the disease. But this is warm and fuzzy stuff; the search for a cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s requires a harder-nosed pursuit of money.
Even Egge, who is “conditionally optimistic” about meeting the 2025 goal, concedes that without quadrupling research funding to $2 billion a year, that goal is “virtually remote.”
In Washington, the squeakiest wheel gets the most grease, and I have a solution: Local Alzheimer’s associations around the country should request — no, demand — that their U.S. represenatives and senators spend one hour, without aides or professional escorts, wandering around an advanced-stage Alzheimer’s ward. Not only would that quickly loosen federal purse strings for Alzheimer’s research, those purse strings would virtually disappear. Guaranteed.
Don Campbell, a former Washington journalist and journalism educator, lives in Oakwood, Ohio, and is a member of USA TODAY’sBoard of Contributors.
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