WASHINGTON — Effective treatments for Alzheimer's by 2025? That's the target the government is eyeing as it develops a national strategy to tackle what could become the defining disease of a rapidly aging population.
It's an ambitious goal – and on Tuesday, advisers to the government stressed that millions of families need better help now to care for their loved ones.
"What's really important here is a comprehensive plan that deals with the needs of people who already have the disease," said Alzheimer's Association president Harry Johns, one of the advisers.
Already families approach the advisory committee "reminding us of the enormity of our task," said Dr. Ron Petersen, an Alzheimer's specialist at the Mayo Clinic who chairs the panel.
The Obama administration is developing the first National Alzheimer's Plan to address the medical and social problems of dementia – not just better treatments but better day-to-day care for dementia patients and their overwhelmed caregivers, too.
The plan still is being written, with the advisory panel's input. But a draft of its overall goals sets 2025 as a target date to have effective treatments and ways to delay if not completely prevent the illness.
Some advisory members said that's not aggressive enough, and 2020 would be a better target date.
"We want to be bold," said Dr. Jennifer Manly of Columbia University. "We think the difference of five years is incredibly meaningful."
Regardless, an estimated 5.4 million Americans already have Alzheimer's or similar dementias – and how to help their families cope with day-to-day care is a priority, the advisory committee made clear Tuesday.
The disease is growing steadily as the population ages: By 2050, 13 million to 16 million Americans are projected to have Alzheimer's, costing $1 trillion in medical and nursing home expenditures. That doesn't count the billions of dollars in unpaid care provided by relatives and friends.
Today's treatments only temporarily ease some dementia symptoms, and work to find better ones has been frustratingly slow. Scientists now know that Alzheimer's is brewing for years before symptoms appear, and they're hunting ways to stall the disease, maybe long enough that potential sufferers will die of something else first. But it's still early-stage work.
Meanwhile, as many as half of today's Alzheimer's sufferers haven't been formally diagnosed, a recent report found. That's in part because of stigma and the belief that nothing can be done. Symptomatic treatment aside, a diagnosis lets families plan, and catching Alzheimer's earlier would be crucial if scientists ever find a way to stall it, the advisory panel noted.
Among the goals being debated for the national plan:
_Begin a national public awareness campaign of dementia's early warning signs, to improve timely diagnosis.
_Give primary care doctors the tools to assess signs of dementia as part of Medicare's annual check-up.
_Have caregivers' health, physical and mental, regularly checked.
_Improve care-planning and training for families so they know what resources are available for their loved one and themselves.
A training program in New York, for instance, has proved that caregivers who are taught how to handle common dementia problems, and given support, are able to keep their loved ones at home for longer.
Such programs "are dirt cheap compared to paying for nursing home care," said David Hoffman, who oversees Alzheimer's programs for the New York State Department of Health.
But hanging over the meeting was the reality of a budget crunch. The government hasn't said how much money it will be able to devote to the Alzheimer's plan, and states have seen their own Alzheimer's budgets cut.
"We're not going to fix this without substantial resources," Hoffman said. "In New York, we're hanging on by our nails," he added.