In another startling reminder of the cost of treating and caring for the nation’s 5 million people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, a new study released this week found that one out of every five Medicare dollars is spent on Alzheimer’s — a rate that will more than double by 2050.
The report by the Alzheimer’s Association claims that total government spending this year for the hospital and nursing home care and hospice treatment for Alzheimer’s victims will reach $236 billion. More than two thirds of that total will come from Medicare and Medicaid, the twin national health care programs for seniors and low-income Americans.
That figure represents a $10 billion increase in estimated overall costs to the government since last year, and it doesn’t begin to address the financial and emotional toll the disease is having on family members and friends of the victims. Families spend $5,000 a year on average caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s, and many family members have to give up their jobs or dip into retirement savings to cover associated costs.
“There is no question that the cost of long-term care is very significant, both for individuals and their families and for the government,” said Brian Collins, a senior policy analyst specializing in health care for the Bipartisan Policy Center. “And individuals who experience dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, tend to have very prolonged side costs — high intensity needs and for a very long time.”
The Congressional Budget Office has repeatedly warned that the federal government is headed back to massive annual deficits of $1 trillion or more in the coming decade unless Congress and the White House find ways to slow the growth of Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs.
Yet as more and more Baby Boomers in their late 60s and early 70s develop Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, the number of people requiring government-funded assistance will more than triple, according to the new report. Alzheimer’s is currently the sixth leading cause of death, and it kills more people annually than breast cancer and prostate cancer.
Medicare, the health care program for seniors, currently pays for acute health care costs of the elderly but does not cover long-term services and support — such as help bathing and eating — that are so important to Alzheimer’s patients and their families. Elderly people who are unable to pay for their care after spending down their savings frequently can qualify for long-term services with Medicaid, the health program for low-income people. But you take your chances on the quality of the facility.
“By 2050, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer's disease may nearly triple, from 5.2 million to a projected 13.8 million, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent or cure the disease,” the report stated. “Previous estimates based on high range projections of population growth provided by the U.S. Census suggest that this number may be as high as 16 million.”
Alzheimer’s is projected to cost more than $1 trillion by 2050 unless a miracle cure is developed in time to prevent families from going bankrupt and the government from spending more on this one disease than any other government program.
That cure may be in the works at Stanford and other leading research universities, or in the labs of leading pharmaceutical companies. But realistically, experts say we are many years away from a cure for Alzheimer’s.
“If approved, these could be the first drugs that will change the course of the disease,” James Hendrix, director of global science initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association, told TIME Magazine about promising new drugs now in development. “To bring back neurons that have been destroyed by plaques and tangles — to me that still seems almost like science fiction, I have a hard time getting to that point.”