As we approach the close of National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month, I've discussed the history of the disease and its impact on a patient's loved ones, but I haven't talked about the extensive, and often silent, effects of Alzheimer's. The burden to people with this chronic illness, to caregivers and to our society rises each year. For these reasons, I'd like to explore the true costs of Alzheimer's disease.
The Cost to Patients
While much of the population recognizes Alzheimer's as a serious health issue, many do not fully grasp its prevalence and the devastation it inflicts. More than 5 million people in the United States currently suffer from the disease, and 1 in 3 seniors will die as a result of its effects. And although Alzheimer's is one of the most common causes of death among older Americans, early onset Alzheimer's affects 200,000 people under the age of 65. What was initially thought to be a concern of the older generation is quickly becoming a concern for everyone.
The Cost to Caregivers
New estimates indicate that family members provide 85% of help to older adults in the United States. This work requires time, money and emotional fortitude; caregivers collectively spend upwards of 18 billion hours of care per year. Would they prefer to spend their time elsewhere? Most likely, but they are left with little choice when a loved one has Alzheimer's. Many of these caregivers make modest livings. A majority of them are women. One-third of them are senior citizens. Some of them are children. Many of them are unpaid and often unrecognized for their service. Finding new treatment options will help patients, and also assist the millions of unsung heroes caring for them.
The Cost to Us All
Alzheimer's disease is among the most deadly of illnesses, and also one of the most expensive. Treating people with severe forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's, demands constant attention. The Alzheimer's Association predicts that disease-related costs will top $226 billion in 2015, and Medicare will bear nearly half of that responsibility. For a program that already contributes heavily to the federal deficit, shouldering the charge of a currently incurable disease is unrealistic and unsustainable. A problem like Alzheimer's demands a lasting solution -- so we can help today's patients and have a greater chance of saving tomorrow.
Is the Alzheimer's crisis insurmountable? Some people may think so. But I'm confident that through the hard work of doctors, researchers, scientists and advocates, we are well on our way to creating a brighter future.