Not everything is rosy about the extended life expectancy of Americans in the 21st century and beyond. As more millions live into their 70s, 80s and even 90s, chances increase dramatically that many will fall victim to the most dehumanizing of all maladies, Alzheimer's disease.
Today, 20 percent, or 1 in 5, of those between age 75 and 84 are stricken, and nearly 42 percent of those over 85 suffer from the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Without a cure, the 5 million Alzheimer's patients today will eventually grow to a population of an estimated 13.2 million by the year 2050, says the National Institute on Aging.
The financial toll is staggering: $150 billion a year in medical and nursing care, as well as the lost productivity of family caregivers whose lives become hostage to helpless Alzheimer's patients and 24-hour care. In desperation, families spend $1.4 billion a year on drugs that aren't very effective.
Several pharmaceutical companies are engaged in research to develop sure-fire drugs to either prevent or control Alzheimer's. But this work must be accelerated to head off a national crisis involving millions of institutionalized patients and no cure.
The National Institutes of Health is pleading with the Bush administration and Congress to double the $643 million now earmarked for Alzheimer's research.
Placed alongside the current debilitating annual costs of Alzheimer's—$150 billion—and the annual costs of the Iraq war, a $1.2 billion budget for NIH Alzheimer's research would be prudent and wise.
American families that have seen the ravages of the disease up close in a family member endure an agonizing, slow-motion view of a life in decline as an alert, vivacious human gradually loses all recognition and ability to function, literally becoming a vegetative dependent.
"We see mothers who don't recognize their daughters," one specialist put it simply.
Without a crash program to get ahead of the onset of more cases in a growing elderly population, the United States eventually will be faced with crises. Families unable to cope physically and financially with Alzheimer's will turn to state and federal governments to warehouse their family members in public institutions. These would be far costlier to build and staff than to double the investment in NIH research today.
With the same kind of effort that put a man on the moon, the United States is likely to have similar success in finding effective treatments for Alzheimer's. The effort must start now before the nation is swamped by the needs of elders who literally have lost their minds.