Lingering stigma and a lack of resources will compound the growing impact of Alzheimer's disease as baby boomers enter retirement. And Linda J. Van Eldik, director of Lexington's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, calls it a health care crisis.
According to the national Alzheimer's Association, the number of new cases of Alzheimer's will have increased by 50 percent between 2000 and 2050. In Kentucky, the number of patients is expected to grow by at least 31 percent.
The Alzheimer's Association projects that the cost of caring for those patients will increase from $183 billion in 2011 to $1.1 trillion in 2050.
"I am very concerned that the economy isn't going to be able to handle this massive health care crisis," Van Eldik said.
Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging, but increased age is a risk factor for the disease, Van Eldik said. Roughly five percent of those who reach age 65 will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she said. By the time people are in their 80s, 40 percent to 50 percent will be affected by the disease.
The health care system isn't set up to deal with the large number of Alzheimer's patients on the horizon, she said.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, unpaid caregivers tend to 60 percent of current patients. Most of those caregivers also have full-time jobs and other responsibilities, such as children younger than 18. That "sandwich" generation will continue to carry much of the burden for care, Van Eldik said.
Alzheimer's research, including the work done at Sanders-Brown, has made great strides in the last decade, but there is little that can be done to help patients once memory troubles begin.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, no treatment is available to slow or stop the deterioration of brain cells in Alzheimer's disease.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved five drugs that temporarily slow worsening of symptoms for about six to 12 months. They are effective in only about half of the patients. Approximately 75 to 100 experimental therapies aimed at slowing or stopping the progression of Alzheimer's are being tested around the world, including some trials at Sanders-Brown.
The lack of effective treatment can reinforce the stigma of the disease, Van Eldik said. But there is hope, she said, if the public mobilizes behind finding a cure and makes it a national health priority.
"What we really need is a very effective lobbying effort, kind of like the Komen group for breast cancer," she said. "We need that for Alzheimer's disease."
Van Eldik, who has been at Sanders-Brown for three years, said that despite her daunting predictions, she's a "glass half-full kind of person." She sees hope in the research progress that has been made.
People are becoming more aware of the disease and more willing to seek help, she said. And there are things people can do to contribute to a healthy brain in the same way they take care of their body.
"You can age successfully," she said. "You can reduce your risk."
In fact, she said, much of what contributes to a healthy body also contributes to a healthy brain. Exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking are all good first steps, she said.
"There has been research that shows it's not just luck of the draw" as to who gets Alzheimer's, she said. "There are lifestyle and environmental things that have an impact."
It is also important to stay socially and mentally active, she said. If a loved one appears to be suffering from memory loss, it's important to get a diagnosis from a memory specialist or a neurologist. Some physical ailments that can lead to memory loss can be treated.
If there is an Alzheimer's diagnosis, she said, it's important that people seek experts who can help them cope. For example, Sanders-Brown has counselors and family specialists available to answer questions.
Having the correct information can go a long way in coping, she said.
"It's almost like people are embarrassed to talk about it," she said, "but it is a true disease."