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Commentary: Is nation ready for Alzheimer’s devastation?

By Jackie Rivers
For the Salisbury Post
On March 18, the Alzheimer’s Association released its latest collection of relevant data about all aspects of the disease and its impact, current and future, on this country. It is a devastating portrait of a looming public health epidemic, and includes this sobering fact: 10 million baby boomers will likely get Alzheimer’s disease. Because our national policymakers are not addressing this developing health crisis, the association took out full-page ads in three national newspapers to ask the three major presidential candidates, Senators Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama, what they plan to do about Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease that kills the brain and eventually the person. At this time, there are no effective treatments to stop the progression of the disease. 78 million baby boomers will be turning 65 in less than three years. We are staring into the face of an epidemic, but we are ignoring it:
– There are approximately 5 million Americans currently living with the disease, and by mid-century, that number is expected to increase to as many as 16 million.
– Every 71 seconds, someone in this country develops Alzheimer’s, and by 2050, every 33 seconds someone will develop Alzheimer’s.
– Today there are between 200,000-500,000 people under the age of 65 with young-onset Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.
– Experts predict that by 2010, there will be almost a half million new cases of Alzheimer’s disease each year, and by 2050, there will be almost a million new cases each year.
– The resulting growth in spending on Medicare and Medicaid will threaten the viability of these already stressed public programs and we do not have the health infrastructure to support or care for the rising numbers of people with Alzheimer’s.
We can change these facts but not with the current proposed federal research budget, that underfunds medical research. Researchers are close to finding effective treatments that can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, but they are not getting the funding they need. For the past five years, the National Institutes for Health (NIH) budget has been essentially flat.
Compared to medical research inflation, NIH has actually lost 13 percent in purchasing power. The number of grants has declined significantly over this period; young researchers are leaving the field.
New and effective treatments for Alzheimer’s will not only save millions of Americans and their families from the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease and the threat to retirement security, but also, Medicare and Medicaid could yield savings of $60 billion annually if we find these treatments. NIH underfunding is a trend that cannot continue with the next presidential administration and Congress. There is much too much at stake.
At this time there is no national policy or strategy in place to deal with this 21st Century public health threat.
So I too want to ask ó Senators Clinton, McCain and Obama, if you are agents of change, you need to alter the course of Alzheimer’s disease and make it a thing of the past.
What is your plan?
– – –
Jackie Rivers is executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association-Western Carolina Chapter. For information, visit the Web site www.alz.org/northcarolina/ or call (704) 532-7392.

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