Alzheimer's: Find a breakthrough or ...

March 31, 2014 | 10:46 pm

Gazette Editorial Board

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$1.1 trillion. Thatís the projected annual cost of caring for Americans with Alzheimerís disease and other forms of dementia by 2050 if we donít find ways to prevent or cure this growing menace. In case you have difficulty comprehending a trillion, consider:

l The annual direct and indirect costs of all types of cancer is about $230 billion ó about one-fourth of a trillion, the National Institutes for Health reports.

l The 2012 budget for all the federal governmentís operating costs will spend about $3.8 trillion with a projected deficit of about $1.33 trillion.

If just one disease will cost that much, itís not affordable in any imaginable scenario.

Bill Thies believes Alzheimerís will be defeated ó some day. ďWhenĒ is largely a matter of how much time and money can be invested in relentless research, the chief medical and scientific officer of the national Alzheimerís Association told us Monday. For example, a clinical trial on a single drug can take two years and cost up to $100 million.

ďThe future will be dark. ... It will bankrupt the health care system and our economyĒ if thereís no treatment or prevention breakthrough in the next several years, Thies warned.

About 5.4 million people in the United States ó 1 of every 8 older Americans ó already are living with Alzheimerís. By 2050, the number will grow to 16 million unless checked. More than 69,000 Iowans have the disease and thatís expected to increase to 77,000 by 2025. Overall, itís the nationís sixth-leading cause of death and is rapidly moving up the list.

Some drugs treat symptoms, but donít stop progression of the disease. Alzheimerís is difficult to diagnose and the condition worsens over years, robbing the patient of memory and eventually all quality of life. Itís a devastating financial and emotional journey for family members and other caretakers. Itís a cruel irony of our longer life spans.

Theisís warnings come with some hope, too. ďThere is some exciting research going on right now,Ē he said.

And thereís also a national strategy. Congress approved bipartisan legislation in May, creating a plan whose goals include prevention/treatment victory by 2025.

The legislation adds $50 million this year to the $450 million in annual research funding the federal government currently provides, then another $80 million in 2031. Seems like a bunch of new money. But keep in mind that cancer research has been receiving $6 billion a year, heart disease $4 billion. Thies figures it will take up to $2 billion a year to put Alzheimerís research on the fast track to success. And private companies arenít willing or able to cover that much investment.

So whatís our choice? Either pay now or pay a lot more later ó especially in human misery.

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