Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Alzheimer’s: a genuine crisis ready to swamp Americans

The numbers are staggering. The finality of the disease is unimaginable. The consequences for the nation are chilling.

What is brewing is a healthcare tsunami—a tidal wave of thousands of new Alzheimer's victims that will grow if a cure or delaying medication isn't found.

Beginning Jan. 1 next year, 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 each day, many doomed to the Alzheimer's affliction. The 5 million cases now known to exist will mushroom to 13.5 million by 2050.

By 2006, the Centers for Disease Control reported Alzheimer's had moved up from seventh to sixth place as the cause of death in the U.S.—with 72,914 that year. In Idaho, 390 deaths were attributed to Alzheimer's in 2008.

Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in an article she co-authored for The New York Times last week spelled out the crisis.

"Alzheimer's disease, an illness that is 100 percent incurable and 100 percent fatal," she wrote. "It attacks rich and poor, white-collar and blue, and men and women, without regard to party. A degenerative disease, it steadily robs its victims of memory, judgment and dignity, and leaves them unable to care for themselves and destroys their brain and their identity—often depleting their caregivers and families both emotionally and financially."

A more brutal definition of Alzheimer's victims would be "the living dead."

Unless Americans are cruelly prepared to simply warehouse these victims and allow them to waste away and die unattended, government, industry and medicine must come together quickly and launch generously funded programs to find a cure and to relieve Alzheimer's families of the huge costs of humane care.

Basic institutional care is virtually prohibitive for most families, as Justice O'Connor pointed out. Home care is impossibly devastating and exhausting.

A crash program costing tens of billions of dollars would be cheap, compared to the long-run costs of care without a cure.

Look at the numbers. At present, $172 billion is spent annually on caring for Alzheimer's patients. By 2020, the cost will have soared to $2 trillion and by 2050, $20 trillion, according to the National Institute of Health.

Some of history's most devastating diseases have been conquered through extraordinary government and medical attacks. Polio is virtually unheard of. Tuberculosis is all but eliminated. Malaria is on the run.

Medicine is capable of turning the tide on Alzheimer's, too, given plentiful funding to unleash the best scientific minds.

The nation has been warned. An epidemic is developing. Further delay would be disastrous.

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