Alzheimer’s, Aging and Global Leadership

Alzheimer’s, Aging and Global Leadership

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Congressman Chris Smith (D-N.J.) broke ground last week when his foreign affairs subcommittee held hearings on global strategies to combat the devastating health and economic impacts of Alzheimer’s disease. What was new, and important, is that Smith framed Alzheimer's as a global issue worthy of UN and G-20 attention because of the fiscal, social and human rights impact of aging populations today.

Let’s look at the facts: One in 8 Americans over the age of 65 is likely to be cursed by Alzheimer's (that number explodes to 1 in 2 over age 85). These numbers were underscored at the hearings as the dark side of developments in aging. 

Daisy Acosta, M.D., of the Dominican Republic, testified as caregiver and chair of Alzheimer's Disease International. She highlighted the group’s 2010 report, which clearly laid out the argument that Alzheimer’s is a socioeconomic stain, costing untold misery today and suffering as well as a whopping $604 billion worldwide, or more than one percent of global GDP last year. Acosta made it clear that driven simply but tragically by aging, the numbers of people afflicted by the illness will grow by mid-century to 115 million, including those in developing and poor countries.  

Congressman Smith's subcommittee has revealed some critical issues. First, Like HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's demands global political commitment, leading to global funding for basic research for the scientific pathway to a cure.  It is a moral sham and a fiscal nightmare to continue the model that assumes only, or mostly, better care as the solution. Moving to treatment innovation, as we did for HIV/AIDs, is essential to meet the health and fiscal challenges of this 21st century scourge.

Second, let's not miss the unique moment this September at the UNGA's NCD summit to include Alzheimer's. Like all non-communicable diseases – diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and others – the worldwide Alzheimer's pandemic will grow as we live longer. While the UN documents that prepare governments for the summit include some references to the disease, Alzheimer's is still absent from the working texts. Equally peculiar is the bare mention of aging as a driver of NCDs, including for those NCDs on which it has chosen to focus, like diabetes, which is due in large part “to population growth and aging.” The UN also seems focused on healthy lifestyles as the solution, missing the need for innovative progress on technology and biomedical research. 

Third, the nature of Alzheimer’s –  in which a large number of caregivers, family members, nurses and health providers must support patients who are ill for up to 10 or 12 years – carries with it a socioeconomic impact that’s at least equal to the toxicity of the illness itself.  If we think Medicare is tough to manage now, just wait until the baby boomers start hitting their eighties.  Currently they comprise a quarter of the U.S. population, and with increases in longevity, they’re poised to start driving up the numbers of Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers – unless, through research and medical science, we can eliminate the burdens of this disease.

And when that happens, Congressman Smith's otherwise tucked away June afternoon subcommittee hearings will be counted as an early but clear and courageous political voice. 

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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.