Forget the Republican primaries, the tortuously tragic Greek debt saga, or the recent visit by the Chinese vice president, Xi Jinping, to the U.S. Aside from the out-of-the-blue success of Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks right now, Alzheimer's may be the top media story this month – and for good reason. Of all the diseases that threaten fiscal and personal health, Alzheimer's is at the top of the list. With the ballooning older adult segment of the U.S. and of global population, we are just at the beginning of the Alzheimer's epidemic. It’s an epidemic that is as huge for its health and social impact as it is for its fiscal consequences, which will explode beyond the $604 billion or 1 percent of global GDP now in play.
This may explain the mention by Dr. Margaret Chan in her forward for the new book launched at Davos last month, Global Population Aging: Peril or Promise. She says of Alzheimer’s: “If we do not adapt, [population aging] is likely to strain pension and social security systems [and] increase demand for acute and primary health care … particularly in dealing with [Alzheimer’s] and other dementia…”
At the rate our population is aging, there’s one entirely predictable direction in which Alzheimer's is heading. According to the World Health Organization, the number of those over 65 will almost double by mid-century, adding up to an incredible one billion. With this age group running a 1 in 8 chance of getting Alzheimer's – and those over 85 standing a 1 in 2.5 risk – the current burden of $604 billion will be barely noticeable.
Was this the arithmetic on President Obama's mind when his administration released a "draft framework" for preventing and treating the disease by 2025? Possibly. As Obama struggles to get the economy back on its feet, perhaps he read the 2010 ADI report showing that Europe and North America shoulder 70 percent of today’s cost. As Obama pulls numerous levers to try to revive the economy, his choice of preventing and curing Alzheimer's was a good one. However much better we get at caring – and we must! – it will still bankrupt us if we consider the impact of 21st century longevity, as the S&P analysis showed recently.
According to a report in The New York Times, two recent studies show that "Alzheimer's disease seems to spread like an infection from brain cell to brain cell." This finding is significant, as it gives researchers a critical insight into how they can prevent the impact of the disease as people age.
Meanwhile, another recent study shows there's a cancer drug already on the market that has "improved brain function and social ability and restored the sense of smell in mice bred with a form of Alzheimer's disease, suggesting a new way to tackle the illness." This finding has scientists hopeful that they’re on the way to finding a drug that can stop the spread of the disease.
To be sure, these three studies aren’t the silver bullet to end the Alzheimer's epidemic, but they do show that research can move at a breakneck pace, especially if it receives the political visibility increasingly attached to Alzheimer’s. And it is research that needs to be funded, even in times of fiscal austerity. In the U.S. alone, almost 15 million people provide 17 billion hours of voluntary help per year to Alzheimer's patients, adding up to $200 billion in unpaid labor. As the 77 million baby boomers near the high-risk age of 65, the demand for care is going to explode and create an unpaid labor force that withhold productivity from the national and global economy. Even more dramatic is the stunningly low amount the U.S. government currently spends on Alzheimer’s research – less than $500 million, versus the $5.8 billion on cancer, $4.3 billion on heart disease, or $3.1 billion on HIV/AIDs – which is the only way we get to those prevention and treatments that will make the fiscal burden sustainable.
That’s why the Alzheimer’s story these past few weeks will endure far beyond the Romney-Santorum squabbles, or even our latest sports darling, Jeremy Lin.