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Sean Philpott: Alzheimer's Disease: A Forgotten Epidemic

We hosted a conference on Alzheimer's disease at the College last week, inviting a distinguished group of physicians, researchers, caregivers, advocates and policymakers to discuss the ethical and legal challenges of diagnosing and treating those with the disease.

These issues are particularly important to me. I have immediate family members who have been affected by Alzheimer's disease, as patients and as long-term caregivers. I also carry a genetic trait known as APOE-e4 that makes me far more likely to develop the disease, and to do so at a younger age.

As someone whose career and self-worth are tied to my ability to think and write creatively, the very thought that I could slowly lose everything that makes me who I am terrifies me. I also worry about the huge personal and financial impact that a diagnosis of Alzheimer's could have on my family.

Those living with Alzheimer's, their families, and their friends also struggle with a myriad of practical issues as the disease slowly robs them of their memory, their thoughts, their speech, and their motor functions. They face difficult choices about treatment, independence, safety, long-term care, and end-of-life decisions.

There is also emotional toll. It is never easy to lose a parent, a sibling, a partner or a friend. But unlike patients suffering from other terminal illnesses, those with Alzheimer's and similar neurodegenerative disorders die twice. They die mentally when their dementia reaches the point that they no longer recognize or remember family and friends. They are still alive physically, and may continue to live for many more years, but the person they were is gone. Family members are left to grieve the loss of their loved one while still caring for the stranger that they have become.

This is the cruel reality of Alzheimer's. It is also a reality that most of us will have to deal with in the years that come.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks Alzheimer's as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. An estimated 84,000 Americans died of the disease in 2010.

But that is likely to be a gross underestimate of Alzheimer's physical toll. According to a recent study conducted at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago, the number of deaths that are actually attributable to the disease may be 5 to 6 times higher. That would mean that nearly half-a-million Americans died of Alzheimer's in 2010, making it the third leading cause of death in the US. Only heart disease and cancer took more lives.

Currently, 1 in 9 Americans aged 65 or older has Alzheimer's. That proportion rises to nearly 1 in 3 for those aged 85 and older. That translates to 5 million people in the United States who have the disease, a number that is expected to triple over the next few decades with the demographic changes associated with the aging of the baby boom generation.

Alzheimer's is already the most expensive disease in the US. We now spend over $200 billion dollars a year caring for those with Alzheimer's including $150 billion in Medicare and Medicaid. About half of all nursing home residents are people with Alzheimer’s disease or other neurodegenerative diseases, most of who rely upon Medicaid to pay for their long-term care.

But that too is likely a gross underestimate of the financial toll of this disease, as it fails to take into account all of the unpaid care provided by family and friends. Nearly 18 billion hours (or $200 billion) of free care was provided in 2013. Most often than not, this care was provided by women who left the workforce in order to care for an ailing spouse, parent, or sibling.

Unless we do something to reverse this tide, Alzheimer's is going to bankrupt us financial and emotionally. We can't reduce the economic cost of caring for those with the disease, so the only solution is to find new ways of slowing or preventing the onset of dementia. We need more research that is aimed at developing new cures and treatments.

Despite this, funding for Alzheimer's research lags considerably when compared with other diseases like breast cancer, stroke, heart disease and HIV/AIDS. Although Alzheimer's now kills nearly as many people as cancer, for example, the federal government spends twelve times on cancer research as it does on Alzheimer's.

This has got to change. We need more bills like the Alzheimer's Accountability Act, introduced in 2014 by Representatives Paul Tonko (D-NY-20) and Brett Guthrie (R-KY-2). We need to provide more funding for Alzheimer's research, but we need to do so in a way that doesn't rob other research initiatives (including efforts to find a cure for cancer) of desperately needed resources.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. Our Congressional leaders are too focused on cutting costs, including slashing the federal budget that supports biomedical research, to recognize the looming crisis. Alzheimer's will, I fear, remain an overlooked and forgotten epidemic until it is to late intervene.

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott is Director of Research Ethics for the Bioethics program at Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Schenectady, New York. He is also Acting Director of Union Graduate College's Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership, and Project Director of its Advanced Certificate Program for Research Ethics in Central and Eastern Europe.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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