Considering the monumental toll Alzheimer's disease is expected to exact in the years ahead – most prognosticators say the number of Americans afflicted will stand at 7.1 million by 2025, a 40 percent increase from today's already staggering 5.2 million – there is very little sense of urgency when it comes to trying to find a cure, or at least inhibit the destructive course Alzheimer's takes through the minds of its victims.
In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) dedicated $500 million to Alzheimer's research. That's not exactly loose change hiding under the couch cushions, but it's dwarfed by the $5.3 billion the NIH expends on cancer research, the $3 billion spent on HIV/AIDS research, the $1.2 billion given over to the study of heart disease and the $1 billion dedicated to diabetes. While the awful toll of those diseases should not be minimized, if Alzheimer's claims as many casualties in the decades ahead as the current projections forecast, we'll all be paying dearly even if we or our loved ones are among the lucky ones who escape unscathed.
Right now, the annual price tag attached to caring for Alzheimer's patients is $214 billion. The lion's share of that cost is going to be picked up by Medicare and Medicaid. If Alzheimer's remains as much a mystery in 2050 as it is in 2014, caring for millennials and members of Generation X who will then be needing treatment will gobble up a jaw-dropping $1.2 trillion every year.
To put that in perspective, spending on all health care needs in the U.S. in 2012 was $2.8 trillion .
By putting more money into Alzheimer's research today we could well save a great deal of money over the long haul. Federal funding for research was increased by $100 million this year, but the Alzheimer's Association is asking for $200 million more. The blogger Steven Brawner pointed out earlier this month that $200 million is “less than the cost of two of the Pentagon's proposed 2,400 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes – a weapons system that, as '60 Minutes' recently reported, is $163 billion over budget and several years behind schedule.”
Brawner continued, “If we're truly worried about America's future, couldn't we get by on 2,398 planes and use the savings from the other two to fund Alzheimer's research?”
Even if a cure is not found, devising a drug, or some combination of them, that would delay the onset of Alzheimer's would, according to the Alzheimer's Association, slice costs in half.
Another step lawmakers can take is to extend the patent life of certain kinds of drugs to increase incentives for pharmaceutical or biotechnology firms. Kenneth Davis, the CEO of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York recently pointed out in The Wall Street Journal that research and clinical trials on the drugs can drag on for years, and extending the period in which companies can have exclusive rights to Alzheimer's drugs would allow them to make back their investments.
“The epidemic is upon us,” John Trojanowksi, director of the Institute on Aging, told Newsweek recently. “It's a very difficult thing to say to a patient that there's nothing we have for you, but that is the honest response. There are no disease-modifying therapies for Alzheimer's.”
That must change.