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The Hill - We Cannot Afford to Forge Alzheimer's

Op-Ed

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By Representative Michael Burgess

What devastation the affliction of Alzheimer's can cause -- it can take one's life, to be sure, but even more insidious, it can remove a lifetime of memories and destroy the very essence of self. On Nov. 5, 1994, former President Reagan announced that he had Alzheimer's. "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life," he said in the letter. At that time, four million Americans suffered from the disease. Today, more than five million Americans live with Alzheimer's, and this year alone, $200 billion will be spent caring for those with the disease.

The impact of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases on our nation is apparent. It costs our nation economically, and individual families suffer emotionally and financially in the wake of caring for a loved one -- that is, for those who are lucky enough to have someone to care for them. One out of every seven people diagnosed with Alzheimer's reportedly lives alone, and almost half are without an identifiable caregiver.

Millions of caregivers have spent billion of hours, all unpaid, attending to loved ones with dementia. While common ailments like heart disease and stroke saw decreasing numbers from 2000 to 2008, deaths from Alzheimer's alone increased by two-thirds. We have seen progress in understanding Alzheimer's, but there still is not a cure or even the means to alleviate the symptoms or halt progression once diagnosed.

Federal investments, while substantial, and growing, cannot alone solve this problem. Philanthropic donations and private government partnerships will certainly play an important role, but can we do more? For every dollar that is spent on Alzheimer's care, less than a penny is invested in finding a cure.

Another tool we could use for combating this illness is the Making Investments Now for Dementia Act. If passed, it would allow every citizen to personally invest in Alzheimer's research by establishing the issuance of United States Alzheimer's Bonds. Proceeds of bond sales would fund the program and be available to the director of the National Institutes of Health solely for Alzheimer's research, in addition to any yearly appropriated funds. This represents funding that could help find a way to end this disease.

Funding, however, is not the only obstacle -- government agencies must work collaboratively to implement a plan that ensures progress is made. In 2010, the National Alzheimer's Project Act was passed with bipartisan support. This historic project created the first coordinated Alzheimer's plan and brought together government entities to develop key initiatives that focus on treating and preventing Alzheimer's. The plan was only the first step. Now, with commitment and coordination, we can move on the goal and make progress in beating this disease.

Everyone has a stake in this -- we must take action in funding research to fight this looming crisis. It's estimated the cost of treating Alzheimer's will be above $1 trillion within a short 15-year time span, and Medicare and Medicaid spending on these patients will rapidly escalate. We should concentrate on the actions we can take now as they will shape the focus of research, care and support for people with Alzheimer's and those who care for them.

I can think of no greater loving gift that my generation can give than to ease the burden and improve the lives of those who suffer. In his letter, Reagan said, "I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead." In that he is correct. Even during hard economic times, we always look to the future. We must find a path to practical results through compassionate efforts. Together, we can ease the burden for families living with Alzheimer's, and improve the health of Americans.

Burgess, M.D., is the vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on Health, and chairman of the Congressional Health Care Caucus.


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