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Harry Johns

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Alzheimer's Can't Wait

Posted: 02/ 6/2012 2:25 pm

Alzheimer's can't wait. Not any longer. More than five million Americans are estimated to have Alzheimer's today. Nearly 15 million family members and friends are unpaid caregivers. The human effects of the disease are devastating. It is progressive, degenerative and fatal. It's killing more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. The effects on caregivers can be seriously damaging or even deadly. The annual cost of providing care for those who have Alzheimer's or another dementia is $183 billion, up $11 billion over the prior year. And, if you think these numbers are staggering, without significant changes it's going to get much worse.

Alzheimer's is not normal aging. But, age is the biggest risk factor. As our population ages, both the human costs of Alzheimer's and the economic costs will soar. Each day in America, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65. Because one in eight of all of us will ultimately have the disease, that means 10 million boomers will have it. Within just 38 years, instead of the five million who have it today, the total could be as high as 16 million. That could mean as many as 45 million unpaid caregivers supporting them as well. The cost for care will no longer be $183 billion, but will be in excess of $1 trillion annually -- and that is not inflated, that is in current dollars.

All of this can change, but only with significant actions now and over the coming years to make such a change a reality. In late 2010, Congress pulled together and passed the National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA), unanimously, in both houses. It was leadership we had not seen before on Alzheimer's. The president signed the bill into law. Together, across party lines and branches of government, it was the kind of leadership Alzheimer's needs. It was the kind of leadership America needs.

NAPA requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop a national plan for Alzheimer's. It requires progress toward improved treatments and cost savings to be reported annually to the Congress.

HHS recently released a framework for the first version of the plan. Again, with this document, we've seen leadership that we have not seen before on Alzheimer's in America. The framework set the objective of preventing and effectively treating Alzheimer's by 2025. It is truly encouraging, a major step forward. It is an urgent and achievable objective, though we must acknowledge that for those who face the disease today -- and for those who will face it before 2025 -- it is a long way off. The real potential exists that treatments currently in the pipeline will make a difference sooner, and we must keep working to secure such advances as soon as possible, but a 2025 objective is needed to focus resources on accountable outcomes. We must also recognize that the science community considers 2025 an aggressive objective for prevention and effective treatment. What is certain is that to make the objective achievable, our leaders must commit significant resources at a difficult time.

Alzheimer's research is dramatically underfunded today. In fact, there is nothing else like it. No other major chronic disease, no other leading cause of death devastates so many lives, has no way to prevent, stop or even slow its progress and has comparatively so little funding committed to research to change those outcomes. Federal government commitments to cancer, cardiovascular disease and HIV/AIDS, commitments that should continue until those diseases are effectively eliminated, are approximately and respectively $6 billion, $4 billion and $3 billion each year.

The current research expenditures at the federal government for Alzheimer's research total just $500 million, despite its huge and growing human and economic impact. A group of esteemed Alzheimer's scientists has made a preliminary estimate that a commitment in the range of $2 billion annually, less than the amounts currently dedicated to other major chronic diseases, could be successful at achieving the 2025 goal.

Without significant resources now, and without growing, appropriately-sized commitments over time, that very encouraging 2025 objective could become yet another disappointment to millions who face the disease daily and are already frustrated by the sad legacy of policy inaction by our federal government.

Alzheimer's is a huge problem, but it is also a huge opportunity. It is an opportunity to change the course of a devastating human condition, an opportunity to make smart, solid financial commitments to save huge sums later -- one of the highest return commitments we could make as a nation -- and it is an opportunity first for the administration and then for the Congress, to lead. It is an opportunity to lead together in ways Americans expect of our elected officials.

Alzheimer's can't wait. Not any longer. Everyone who has been touched by this disease knows its terrible effects. All of those families are waiting for the next steps of the NAPA process, starting with the president's budget, followed by the first draft of the plan, and later, by actions of Congress to implement that plan. Those families are waiting, they're watching and they won't forget what happens.

Help us in this endeavor and sign the National Alzheimer's Plan petition at alz.org/petition

Harry Johns
Alzheimer's Association
President and CEO

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