It doesn't get the global attention of cancer or AIDS; it's not as prolific a killer as heart disease. But anyone living with or caring for a family member with dementia or Alzheimer's disease knows just how all-consuming and devastating the conditions can be. There are an estimated 44 million people worldwide with dementia. That number is expected to surge dramatically with the aging global population — often called the “silver tsunami” — to 135 million people by 2050.
While heart disease and cancer claim more American lives, Alzheimer's has become our most expensive malady, despite being the sixth leading cause of death, according to the RAND Corp.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's alone will cost an estimated $1.1 trillion annually by 2050 in the United States alone. That's direct costs and the indirect costs of care, but for many families the stress and hardship of living with the disease can't be quantified. And patients with dementia and similar conditions can live with them for years, decades, even.
While there has been some exciting research into what might cause Alzheimer's, a cure is considered a distant dream. But fighting Alzheimer's doesn't dominate the public policy sphere as much as other ailments, leaving patients and their many loved ones to struggle in relative quiet. It's compounded by loved ones' struggles to maintain the dignity of the patient: It's simply easier in our culture to talk about a mother who has had a heart attack than it is to talk about a mother who no longer recognizes her husband and her children.
The first-ever G8 Dementia Summit was convened last month by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. World leaders committed to attempting to solve the global problem of Alzheimer's and other dementia by 2025. The global effort will require increased public awareness, more research and funds. The United States spends about $500 million on Alzheimer's research. That figure is less than 0.5 percent of the cost of care. Advocates hope that the United States and other wealthy nations can commit 1 percent of the cost of care to research. The United States lags other countries in enrolling patients in research programs as well.
As we take on this historic reform of our healthcare industry in this country, focusing on our most expensive medical conditions and helping millions of American families are worthy goals. We should build on this historic chance to work collaboratively with other leading nations to fight Alzheimer's and dementia.