In our youth-centric culture, there seems to be a natural inclination to ignore the problems of the aging population. But we’re all going to get old. Ignoring what goes along with aging isn’t just ignorant, it’s damaging. The sixth leading cause of death in the United States, Alzheimer’s claims more lives than breast and prostate cancer combined. With Baby Boomers marching steadfastly into retirement age, the numbers are going to increase exponentially. So why isn’t there more Alzheimer’s research and funding dedicated to treating, curing and preventing this debilitating disease?
Sadly, there’s an oft preconceived notion that diseases that affect the young are more important to address. And there’s also the fear and the well-known stigma that goes along with Alzheimer’s. Because it’s a disease that affects the mind, caregivers can be reticent or ashamed to admit that their loved ones are afflicted.
The Biggest Malady in the United States is Getting Worse
Alzheimer’s care costs $200 billion each year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. And as the Baby Boomers age, we’re looking at a massive problem that’s only going to increase.
The number of people 65 and older with Alzheimer’s is estimated to reach 7.1 million by 2025, a 40% increase from the 5 million age 65 and older currently affected. By 2050, the number of people 65 and older with Alzheimer’s is projected to nearly triple, to 13.8 million, unless treatments or cures are developed, according to Banner Alzheimer’s Institute.
As Guy Eakin, vice president of scientific affairs for BrightFocus Foundation, an organization that provides funding for early stage, investigator-led research, points out, “the total U.S. healthcare cost for Alzheimer’s is expected to grow to $1.1 trillion per year by 2050. “
There’s no better time to create a shift in focus, to help others understand the immense impact these numbers are going to have on our society in the years to come.
Meryl Comer, a seasoned broadcast journalist and President of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer’s Initiative and a long-term caregiver to her husband who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at age 58, said in an interview with A Place for Mom, “We need to wage a war on Alzheimer’s, just as we did with cancer. We need options around the disease. Baby boomers need to say the disease is ‘unacceptable for our future.”
Comer begs the question, “How can the government spend 200 billion dollars annually on care and less than 1% on research? We need to be on the fast track for therapies like HIV/AIDS and cancer.”
Lack of Funding Prevents Scientists From Important Work
As passionate about finding answers, treatment options and possible cures as most research scientists are, without proper funding they simply can’t afford to take on the work.
In a 2013 survey of biomedical scientists doing early stage drug development for Alzheimer’s disease raised concerns that research funding is disproportionately low and risks putting labs developing treatments for the neurological disease in funding limbo.
About 94% said a lack of federal funding for brain and eye disease research is impeding scientific discoveries and 91 percent said that this is driving scientists from the field. The concern is that the funding challenges faced even by labs that have received funding in the past will deter future generations of scientists from pursuing research and instead opt for careers that command better salaries and maybe less stress.
Funding data from the National Institutes of Health shows that funding for Alzheimer’s disease research has wavered between $412 million in 2008 to an estimated $449 million in 2013. AIDS research by comparison has gone from $2.9 billion to $3 billion in the same period. Cancer research has gone from $5.5 billion to $5.4 billion and cardiovascular disease research has remained fairly steady at $2 billion from 2008 to 2013.
But There’s New Hope
Just last week, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced $45 million in grants for research to find therapies for Alzheimer’s.
The funding includes $40 million from the Office of the NIH Director, Francis Collins. Additional funding will come from the National Institute on Aging.
“Alzheimer’s robs [people] of their memories, their independence and ultimately, their lives,” Collins said in a statement. “We are determined, even in a time of constrained fiscal resources, to capitalize on exciting scientific opportunities to advance understanding of Alzheimer’s biology and find effective therapies as quickly as possible.”
One of the projects that the funding will support is the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative APOE4 Trial with the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. This five-year trial will test an anti-amyloid drug in cognitively healthy adults, ages 60-75, who are at increased risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s. They inherited two copies of the APOE4 allele, a major genetic risk factor.
There’s Still Much To Be Done
Facing a future filled with aging Boomers and a lack of funding, it’s hard to imagine where we’ll be in terms of finding a cure in the next decade and beyond. The government’s assertion that it will find a cure by 2025 feels like a daunting, not to mention, far off task.
So what can be done? As caregivers, we can begin by advocating for our loved ones and giving them a voice that they cannot give themselves. We can share our stories and speak out to help ease and, ultimately, eliminate the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s. And we can support one another with a strong and unified goal of finding a cure through greater awareness about the devastating effects of this disease.
Each and every one of us will be touched by Alzheimer’s in one way or another in our lifetime. The time to speak out is now.
How can you help remove the stigma associated with this disease? Will you share your stories and support the greater community so that more important research can be done?