Curing our Alzheimer's epidemic

By Sandra Day O'Connor and Maria Shriver
Friday, December 17, 2010

Every American president must take on a defining challenge to mobilize the American spirit and advance the American story. The too-brief presidency of John F. Kennedy is remembered for a commitment to land a man on the moon within a decade. And this we did. Ronald Reagan declared that a resolute America would "transcend" communism. Less than a year after he left office, the Berlin Wall fell without a shot being fired.

Alzheimer's disease is our generation's defining challenge. It is quickly becoming one of the greatest public and financial health issues of our time. The House's passage Wednesday of the National Alzheimer's Project Act sends this critical legislation to the White House for President Obama's signature. Passage was a first step toward development of a strategic national plan to fight this disease.

Let us set before the nation the goal of defeating Alzheimer's within the next decade.

Much as President Kennedy launched an expedition to the moon, why can't we launch an expedition to the brain - the last frontier of biomedical research - to discover the cures for Alzheimer's and so many other neurological diseases that affect millions of American families?

Our nation is locked in an energy-sapping debate over its fiscal future. Among our many challenges are the interlinked medical and fiscal threats of aging and illness. The health-care costs of older Americans are the most significant driver of government spending, and the chronic diseases of those using Medicare and Medicaid are sapping patients' families financially and emotionally.

The time has come to turn from partisanship and despair about our fiscal future and recall once more the power of a visionary goal to mobilize American ingenuity and innovation - and lift the American spirit.

Alzheimer's must be considered a full-blown epidemic: It is killing some 5.3 million Americans now and challenges more than 11 million caregivers annually, the majority of whom are women increasingly drawn out of the workforce to care for a relative even as they care for their children. More than half of all Americans know someone with the disease, according to polling data done by the Shriver Report and USAgainstAlzheimer's.

Alzheimer's is a family disease, affecting the emotional, physical and financial health of multiple generations. We understand the enormous toll this disease takes on families. One of us had a husband who suffered from it, and the other has a father who still does. The lion's share of the costs are borne by families - at too high a price. Already Medicaid is spending more than $24 billion annually on care for victims whose families have gone bankrupt trying to cover those costs. On Jan. 1, the baby boom generation begins to turn 65 at the rate of 10,000 people per day for the next 19 years. The number of Alzheimer's cases will rise rapidly, and the drain on American productivity and female caregivers will sap our national strength.

Meanwhile, the costs of Alzheimer's are also escalating rapidly. Annual spending on care for those with the disease is more than $170 billion - and is projected to reach $2 trillion over the next decade.

So what are the best strategies for dealing with an epidemic? Cure and prevention. They are not only the most compassionate approaches but also the most fiscally conservative.

Polio was once a raging epidemic, crippling and killing, but we developed a vaccine. We didn't simply invest in better wheelchairs, leg braces and iron lungs - we invested in innovative medicine. Now our society spends virtually nothing on polio, because we don't have to; the vaccine has paid for itself millions of times over.

HIV/AIDS raged in the mid-1980s, but we as a nation rolled up our sleeves, developed a plan, invested in treatments and turned an aggressive killer into a manageable disease. That $10 billion government investment was considerable, but it also saved the nation $1.4 trillion in costs of care.

Recently, fiscal experts from across the political spectrum have issued solid and thoughtful reports suggesting ways to reduce the national deficit and debt. Yet none of these reports, earnest as they might be, has a galvanizing national goal at its heart.

The best way to reduce spending is to eliminate the diseases that cost this country so much to treat. One study found that a medical breakthrough against Alzheimer's - even one that merely delays the age of onset by just five years - would mean 1.6 million fewer American deaths from the disease and annual savings of $362 billion by 2050.

Americans would embrace that common-sense approach. Unlocking the mysteries of the brain and finding a cure for Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases would be a win for individual health, deficit reduction and the economy.

So now we need leaders looking to get ahead of an epidemic headed right for us, leaders with the vision of JFK or Ronald Reagan, leaders ready to take on a worthy quest of their own.

Sandra Day O'Connor is a retired associate justice of the Supreme Court. Maria Shriver is first lady of California.

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