With the new year will come a new approach to fighting the deadly, devastating disease that is Alzheimer's. Congress recently endorsed the National Alzheimer's Project Act, a coordinated plan to confront a burgeoning health-care crisis.
There are more than 5 million Americans now suffering from Alzheimer's. By 2050, that number is expected to triple. The financial toll will be even steeper. Last year, the cost to Medicaid and Medicare for care of Alzheimer's patients was $170 billion. In 40 years, that will rise to $800 billion to cover the needs of 16 million with the disease.
Those calculations merely measure money; they don"t take into account the lost wages of caregivers who abandon their jobs to care for an ailing parent or partner. And they can't express the psychic toll of depression and despair surrounding many Alzheimer's cases.
"If you go to war, you have to have planning, planning, planning," U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-Robbinsville, told The New York Times. "Well, this is a war on a dreaded disease. We need to bring all the disparate elements together for the greatest possible result."
The co-sponsor of the legislation as well as the co-chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer's, Rep. Smith has long been a champion for those with the disease and their families. This latest bill establishing NAPA is by far the most thorough, far-reaching and focused effort to prepare for the ravages of an aging population. It promises to "accelerate the development of treatments that would prevent, halt or reverse the course of Alzheimer's" and "improve the early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and coordination of the care and treatment of citizens with Alzheimer's."
Research into the cause of the disease has been promising but underfunded, at the rate of a penny for every dollar spent on care. And while the NAPA bill now awaiting President Barack Obama's signature does not provide for an increase in funding, it does help direct and focus resources to do away with duplication.
The pace of Alzheimer's is accelerating with the age of baby boomers, the first of whom will turn 65 this week. The longer we live, the more likely we are to be diagnosed with the disease. Already, about half of those 85 and older already have Alzheimer's. According to the Alzheimer's Association, by mid-century, someone will develop Alzheimer's every 33 seconds, and there will be nearly a million new cases per year.
There is no time to lose in assembling a national campaign against this slow, tortuous death sentence that can stretch out for 20 years after diagnosis. As it erodes the memories of its victims, it erodes their essence. Thought by thought, cell by cell, they die without even knowing the reason.
Congress has done the right thing in assembling an array of forces to reckon with the rapid rise of this devastating disease.