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De-Linking Alzheimer's And Aging

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In the course of President Obama's SOTU litany, his recommitment to spending on Alzheimer's research stands out as the one topic that brought applause from both sides of the aisle. It even earned praise from some of Obama's most severe ideological critics. On Fox News, Jim Pinkerton claimed, "Alzheimer's research is a cause Obama and his critics should all support -- to save both money and lives."

This is exactly the right point, and it's the reason that bitter rivals can overlook their cantankerous disputes to join forces. Investing in Alzheimer's research is both a social and economic investment that will pay dividends if we get it right. And Americans will not have to go it alone. Globally, Alzheimer's is understood as the 21st century's great health and fiscal crisis. With a billion people over 65 in just about a decade -- and with the near perfect correlation between advancing age and increased risk -- no country can afford to defer their commitments to beat Alzheimer's.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that Democrats and Republicans agree that investing in Alzheimer's is money well spent. And perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to see a growing number of countries adopting robust national Alzheimer's plans. The World Health Organization has set the global tone, declaring the disease to be "a global public health priority." It is very significant that the WHO is using this term, as it is one they only use rarely and with great caution. The United Nations has made equally historic strides through their recent dedication to non-communicable diseases, which includes an entire section on Alzheimer's.

President Obama, it seems, is very serious about preparing the United States for the oncoming surge of Alzheimer's cases. The administration is taking serious and courageous steps to advance our understanding of the human brain, undertaking a "decade-long scientific effort... to do for the brain what the Human Genome did for genetics."

This is huge, and, with the right follow-through, it will be like President Kennedy's call in 1960 to put a Man on the Moon. And we all know how that one turned out.

Alzheimer's needs inspired global leadership. Already, the disease saps a whopping $604 billion annually -- 1% of Global GDP. But experts agree that this number, enormous as it is, is still an underestimation due to the high rate of unreported cases around the world. As the "longevity miracle" extends lives across the globe (and most dramatically in the developing world), Alzheimer's is not an isolated issue of the developed world.

While President Obama's efforts should be applauded, the Europeans have already begun a similar initiative. The Human Brian Project in Europe plans to build "a facility that will simulate the human brain [an bring together] 13 research universities, research facilities and hospitals... to coordinate hundreds of other activities in Europe and around the world." In other words, this project, like Obama's, hopes to "map" the brain just as we have mapped the human genome.

In the two months of 2013, we have witnessed partnership to beat Alzheimer's both "across the aisle" and "across the pond." But late last year, the Japanese also hosted an OECD conference on "The Silver Economy" at their famed Waseda University. At the conference, it was recognized that Alzheimer's is the most significant anchor to transforming Japan's aging population -- soon to be 40% of their entire population -- to one that can add economic value to their strategic growth goals.

Ultimately, our goal must be to de-link Alzheimer's from aging. We have done this for a number of other health conditions that were once inextricably age-related - like vision loss, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, for example. This would be revolutionary progress, to be sure, but we can't be intimidated by the complexity of the challenge. As Americans, Europeans and Japanese make their own national commitments for basic research, we still need is a global commitment and a global fund to find better ways to prevent and treat Alzheimer's.

Such a goal will require political cooperation beyond Democrats and Republicans, but the across-the-aisle partnership we've seen on Alzheimer's provides a good start. In our 21st century marked by aging populations, good science policy is the basis of great economic policy.

Michael Hodin writes the Age and Reason blog for The Fiscal Times

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