In the course of President Obama’s SOTU litany, his recommitment to spending resources on Alzheimer’s research stands out as the one topic that brought applause from both sides of the aisle. It even earned praise from some of Obama’s most severe ideological critics. On Fox News, Jim Pinkerton claimed that “Alzheimer’s research is a cause Obama and his critics should all support – to save both money and lives.”
This is exactly right, and it’s why bitter political rivals can overlook their cantankerous disputes to join forces. Investing in Alzheimer’s research is both a social and economic investment that will pay dividends if we get it right.
And Americans will not have to go it alone. Alzheimer’s is understood globally as the 21st century’s great health and fiscal crisis. With a billion people over 65 in just about a decade and with the near-perfect correlation between advancing age and increased risk, no country can afford to defer its commitments to beat Alzheimer’s.
It may be no surprise that Democrats and Republicans can agree that investing in Alzheimer’s is money well spent. And maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to see a growing number of countries adopting robust national Alzheimer’s plans. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set the tone, declaring the disease to be “a global public health priority.” It is very significant that the WHO is using this term, as it is one the group only uses with great caution. The United Nations has made equally historic strides through its recent dedication to non-communicable diseases, which includes an entire dedicated section on Alzheimer’s.
President Obama, it seems, is very serious about preparing the United States for the oncoming surge of Alzheimer’s cases. A piece in The New York Times underscores this. The administration is taking concrete steps to advance our understanding of the human brain, putting money and political chips toward a “decade-long scientific effort … to do for the brain what the Human Genome did for genetics.”
This is huge – and with the right follow-through, it could be like President Kennedy’s call in 1960 to put a man on the moon.
Alzheimer’s needs inspiring global leadership. Already, the disease saps a whopping $604 billion annually – 1 percent of global GDP. But experts agree this enormous number is still an underestimation given the high rate of unreported cases around the world.
As the “longevity miracle” extends lives across the globe (and, most dramatically, in the developing world), Alzheimer’s is not only not an isolated issue of the developed world but will have impact across all regions, including Africa at a rapidly and frighteningly increasing pace. If the world was prompted to act on HIV/AIDs not least because the devastation is wreaking havoc across Africa and other poor regions, we will see the exact same story in the 21st century on Alzheimer’s, except worse.
While President Obama’s efforts should be applauded, the Europeans have already begun a similar initiative. The Human Brain Project in Europe plans to build “a facility that will simulate the human brain [and bring together] 13 research universities, research facilities and hospitals … to coordinate hundreds of other activities in Europe and around the world.” In other words, this project, like America’s, hopes to “map” the brain as we have mapped the human genome.
If, in the first two months of 2013, we’re witnessing important steps to beat Alzheimer’s both “across the aisle” and “across the pond,” late last year, the Japanese also hosted an OECD conference on “the Silver Economy” at their famed Waseda University. At the conference, it was recognized that Alzheimer’s is the most significant anchor to transforming Japan’s aging population – soon to be 40 percent of its entire population – into one that can add economic value to strategic growth goals.
Our ultimate goal must be to de-link Alzheimer’s from aging. We have begun to do this for a number of other health conditions that were once inextricably age-related: vision loss, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, for example. This would be revolutionary progress, to be sure, but we can’t be intimidated by the complexity of the challenge. What is still missing is the global commitment – a global fund – for innovation to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s.
Such a goal will require political cooperation beyond the two parties, but an across-the-aisle partnership on Alzheimer’s provides a good start. In a 21st century marked by aging populations, good science policy can also be great economic policy.