Baby boomers and Gen Xers whose parents or grandparents have been ravaged by Alzheimer's disease would surely welcome a cure — a breakthrough that would restore the precious memories and personality traits loved ones have lost and enable them to perform simple, everyday functions such as smiling, speaking and recognizing a family member.
A cure for one of America's most feared and costly diseases is the ultimate goal of the Alzheimer's Association.
But even modest advances that slow the progression of Alzheimer's or delay its onset would dramatically reduce the numbers of today's active adults who will suffer from the disease over the next 40 years.
Incremental improvements also would achieve dramatic savings for Medicare and Medicaid (not to mention out-of-pocket costs not covered by these federal programs and not including the value of unpaid care given by family members and others).
Those are compelling reasons to reverse America's chronic under-investment in, and lack of a national plan for, Alzheimer's research.
A recent report released by the Alzheimer's Association found that the number of Americans 65 and older suffering from the disease will balloon 265 percent, from 5.1 million today to 13.5 million, by mid-century.
In Kentucky, the numbers will grow from 80,000 to nearly 212,000. Without a breakthrough that will delay onset or slow progression, the total annual cost of care for Americans with Alzheimer's will rise from $172 billion to more than $1 trillion in 2050.
Today, there is no cure for Alzheimer's. And there are no treatments that can prevent, delay, stop or slow the progression of the disease.
But what would happen if a breakthrough that delayed onset by five years occurred by 2015? In that case, according to the report, we would see a dramatic reduction in the number of victims in as little as 10 years, as the number of Americans 65 and older with the disease would decrease from 5.6 million to 4 million.
By 2050, 5.8 million fewer Americans would have Alzheimer's, and 3 million fewer Americans would be in the severe stages of the disease.
The costs for treatment also would drop significantly: Medicare and Medicaid programs combined would save $42 billion annually by 2020 and $362 billion annually by 2050.
Similarly, a treatment breakthrough by 2015 that slowed the progression of Alzheimer's would mean:
■ Those in the severe stages in 2020 would drop from 2.4 million to 1.1 million.
■ Those in the severe stages in 2050 would drop from 6.5 million to 1.2 million.
■ Annual Medicare and Medicaid savings would be $34 billion by 2020, and $180 billion by 2050.
Yet no one government entity has the sole purpose of mounting a full campaign against Alzheimer's disease, and there is no oversight agency to ensure that every dollar spent on the disease is used to ensure the best possible research, the best possible care and the right number of nursing beds for current and future victims and their families.
The Alzheimer's Association is advocating legislation that would create a National Alzheimer's Project Office to develop and implement a comprehensive national plan. The legislation (S. 3036 /H.R. 4689) builds on recommendations of the independent, bipartisan Alzheimer's Study Group which found that an office dedicated to Alzheimer's could draw on the expertise residing in various government agencies as well as individuals living with the disease, family and professional caregivers, health care providers and others. I urge you to ask your senator and representative to support this legislation.
Meanwhile, in the coming months, the Kentucky and Southern Indiana chapter of the Alzheimer's Association will be holding Memory Walk events in 11 communities.
Memory Walks are the largest annual fund-raisers for Alzheimer's research. Since 1989, Memory Walks have raised more than $200 million to help those battling Alzheimer's disease.
Since 2004, $3.5 million has been raised by Memory Walk participants in our service area.
The Lexington Memory Walk will be Sept. 19. I encourage you to form a team today — perhaps it will be just you and your spouse or a sibling this year — but every walker, every team and every dollar raised in 2010 can mean fewer people ravaged by Alzheimer's in the future.