A report issued Thursday on the financial impact of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States warns that it could soar to more than $1 trillion a year by 2050, with much of it borne by the federal government, unless action is taken to shift current trends.
The Alzheimer’s Association report, “Changing the Trajectory of Alzheimer’s Disease, urges the federal government to meet its own goals for research funding in a bid to find a cure or effective treatments by 2025. The U.S. could save $220 billion within the first five years if such treatments were found, the nonprofit’s report says. Even with an interim treatment that slowed onset by five years, the costs would immediately drop as much as $535 billion over a 10-year period.
“Basically, the science is ready,” Robert J. Egge, vice president of public policy at the Alzheimer’s Association said in an interview. “But we see a lot of good science waiting to be funded, and there simply aren’t the funds to do so.”
Other organizations involved in the fight against Alzheimer’s have also warned the Obama administration and Congress that the demographic shift underway in the United States means that failing to put money into research now could cost the country dearly later.
But advocates also said the Alzheimer’s Association’s report points up the difficulties in coordinating a well-funded attack against the leading cause of dementia even as a demographic shift in the United States toward an older population and attention shifts to chronic age-related diseases.
George Vradenburg, chairman and co-founder of USAgainst Alzheimer’s, said part of the difficulty in sustaining public interest in the fight may be negative cultural attitudes toward aging and a “stigma” that still lingers to a disease that afflicts the mind and hits mostly people who are 65 years or older.
“It’s a disease of the mind, and so it somehow seems as if you’re in control,” Vradenburg said. But he also noted that a similar stigma existed with cancer, which people not so long ago would refer to only as “the big C.” That attitude began to shift after President Nixon declared a “war on cancer” in 1971.
A similar cultural shift could be under way now, Vradenburg said. As more Baby Boomers — the largest generational bulge — head into retirement, more attention has been given to Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related chronic illnesses. The disease has been depicted in recent years in “Sopranos” and “Mad Men” episodes, and the impact of its early onset on an accomplished middle-aged scientist is the subject of the movie “Still Alice.” Julianne Moore, who received Golden Globe for her portrayal of the movie’s title character, has also been nominated for an Academy Award.
“The whole cultural attitude to aging and to death is going to change and ripple through society as Baby Boomers go into their 70s now,” he said.
More than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s, a number that’s expected to increase to 13.5 million by 2050. The current cost of care for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is $226 billion a year; Medicare and Medicaid pick up about 68 percent of the costs. By 2050, the proportion of people suffering from the most severe phase of the degenerative disease — and requiring the most expensive care — will also increase to almost half, or 6.5 million people, of those who are projected to develop the disease.
The 2011 National Alzheimer’s Project Act required the creation of a national plan to fight Alzheimer’s. The plan calls for finding ways to prevent and treat the disease by 2025. Some scientists and advocates say growing advances in a research field that barely existed 40 years ago have generated optimism that the same focused approach that achieved breakthroughs in cancer and HIV research could be accomplished with Alzheimer’s. The odds of success would be better if the United States committed to spending at least $2 billion on research, a sum comparable to the research funding given and cancer and HIV, Egge said.
“We’re far short of that today, approaching $600 million,” Egge said. He also said that the percentage of NIH’s overall funding — approximately 2 percent — is the same as it was in the early 1990s. “I think one reason is that this has been a slowly developing story that only recently has America at large started talking about it,” Egge said.
Vradenburg said he welcomed President Obama’s request to boost funding for the Brain Research though Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which involves the National Institute of Health and other federal agencies.
But Vradenburg also said that it’s “distressing” that the administration did not push for more resources for Alzheimer’s research as it has done in the past. He said the administration should at least be pushing for incremental funding increases that would boost Alzheimer’s research to $2 billion a year, a target developed by an advisory panel of scientists and set by the Obama administration.
By comparison, the government spends about $3 billion a year researching HIV/AIDS and about $6 billion a year on cancer. Yet cancer costs amount to about $66 billion a year, while Alzheimer’s is estimated to cost $110 billion a year.
“We’re spending $200 billion a year — a quarter of Medicare — right now. How much more do you want the taxpayer to pay?” said Vradenburg, who was AOL’s former chief counsel. “How about an innovation strategy that at least says we ought to relate our research investments to the cost of our diseases?”