Will Alzheimer’s Disease Be the Financial Straw that Breaks the Medicare Camel’s Back?

According to data in the annual report from the Alzheimer’s Association, one American will develop Alzheimer’s disease every 66 seconds in 2017. By 2050, the report says, the number will double—so one new diagnosis every 33 seconds.

Perhaps more importantly, these incredibly alarming statistics are not isolated to the United States. The World Alzheimer’s Report, from 2016, estimated that approximately 47 million people across the planet have some form of dementia. Putting that into context: it is a little more than the present-day population of Spain.

What might be most alarming, though, is that the current data show that 9 out of 10 people who have dementia are from low and middle income countries; and half of those with dementia who live in high-income countries go undiagnosed.

“What is driving these numbers is that there is no disease modifying treatment, no prevention and no cure,” explains Ruth Drew, who is the director of family and information services for the Alzheimer’s Association. She continues, “And while U.S. deaths from Alzheimer’s have doubled in the last 15 years, an increase of 89%, deaths from other major diseases have been declining.”

For example she notes that heart disease-related deaths—which remain the leading killer of American adults—fell 14 percent over the same period as the Alzheimer’s study; HIV deaths have fallen by 54 percent, stroke deaths are down 21 percent and prostate cancer deaths are also down by 9 percent.
She goes on to say, “Other diseases have declined because of significant investments in research that produce treatments and techniques to reduce risk, sometimes even a cure.”

So what is the difference between these conditions and Alzheimer’s disease? Why are we seeing everything else dropping but Alzheimer’s climbing?
“The issue is mainly funding,” explains Harvard professor of neurology Rudy Tanzi, who also leads the MassGeneral’s Genetics and Aging Research Unit. “We are a knowledge-rich yet budget-constrained field. We have many clues about how to stop Alzheimer’s, especially from recent genetic studies, but insufficient funds to explore how.”

Expert are now saying that without more funding—and, more importantly, a breakthrough—Alzheimer’s could, in fact, be the disease which break’s America’s proverbial health care bank. For the first time in history, in 2017, total costs for caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease (and other dementias) reached $259 billion.

Tanzi advises: “Already, Alzheimer’s consumes one in every five Medicare/Medicaid dollars. With 71 million baby boomers headed toward risk age, this will go to one in three, perhaps in the next decade, at which point Alzheimer’s will single-handedly collapse Medicare/Medicaid.”

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