Alzheimer's: Find a breakthrough or ...

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: August 8 2012 | 12:01 am - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 10:46 pm in
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Gazette Editorial Board

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$1.1 trillion. That’s the projected annual cost of caring for Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by 2050 if we don’t 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 — about one-fourth of a trillion, the National Institutes for Health reports.

l The 2012 budget for all the federal government’s 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, it’s not affordable in any imaginable scenario.

Bill Thies believes Alzheimer’s will be defeated — some day. “When” 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 Alzheimer’s Association told us Monday. For example, a clinical trial on a single drug can take two years and cost up to $100 million.

“The future will be dark. ... It will bankrupt the health care system and our economy” if there’s no treatment or prevention breakthrough in the next several years, Thies warned.

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

Some drugs treat symptoms, but don’t stop progression of the disease. Alzheimer’s is difficult to diagnose and the condition worsens over years, robbing the patient of memory and eventually all quality of life. It’s a devastating financial and emotional journey for family members and other caretakers. It’s a cruel irony of our longer life spans.

Theis’s warnings come with some hope, too. “There is some exciting research going on right now,” he said.

And there’s 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 Alzheimer’s research on the fast track to success. And private companies aren’t willing or able to cover that much investment.

So what’s our choice? Either pay now or pay a lot more later — especially in human misery.

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