Age & Reason
Healthcare Spending and the Alzheimer’s Crisis
Monday, February 28, 2011 - 3:12pm
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If American lawmakers are serious about the federal budget crisis, they have to look beyond a possible deal to avert a government shutdown.  They have to address the single largest fiscal nightmare threatening 21st century economic stability: our aging populations’ health-care spending.

Many across Europe increasingly recognize that if healthcare for aging populations is the single largest fiscal challenge, Alzheimer’s is perhaps the greatest burden. The French government last week marked the three-year anniversary of its plan, to deal with “an epidemic that is increasing its pace with the graying of the population” – Alzheimer’s.   Having increased their research spending, the French report some intriguing discoveries of new genes that may hold the secret to better understanding of Alzheimer’s and possibly cures, which are now moving into a first ever global consortium and could lead to more promising developments. In the critical area of earlier detection and diagnosis, the French have a multitude of “Memory Clinics” across the country. And, recognizing more effective care today is also essential, they have made progress on more and better “Care Homes”.

Consider the recently released study by the U.K.’s International Longevity Center. “Commensurate with population aging, the number of people with Alzheimer’s is set to increase...the over 65s in the EU will go from roughly 85 million today to approximately 150 million by mid-century. [Escalating economic, health and social care  costs... indicate we] have between four to six years to address the issues of long term and dementia care before our economies crumble under the strain.” One in three people over 65 are at risk of Alzheimer’s, and one in two over 85.  On the heels of the ILC report, Britain’s Daily Telegraph earlier this week echoed the call to arms with an article headlined “Britain faces dementia catastrophe without 'aggressive' research drive.”

In the U.S., as Holman Jenkins writes in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “Medicare is the real killer…an average couple retiring last year can look forward to consuming Medicare benefits with a present value of $343,000, having paid Medicare taxes with a present value of $109,000…even that $109,000 is not available today.” Not that this should surprise; it is a common think tank theme, reflected in Richard Jackson’s CSIS Global Aging Preparedness study reported here earlier, While many G-20 countries from Europe and the U.S. to Japan or Mexico… “are already making progress on pension and retirement benefits – likely to increase a manageable 1 percent of GDP on average – healthcare will be unsustainable as it exceeds an expected 4 percent increase based on aging populations.”

As the British writer Samuel Johnson once said of hanging, “it tends to concentrate the mind.” Europeans’ minds  may be more concentrated than ours, since they are  further ahead in the fiscal challenge from an aging population. The portion of the population older than 60 in some countries will be approaching 40 percent by mid-century (ours will be barely 20 percent).  Still, it’s time for American lawmakers to go beyond the immediate budget battles – government shutdown or not -- and start preparing for the real fiscal crisis as our population ages.

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Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.