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Alzheimer’s Disease—Where We Are and Where We Are Headed

| Monte Schwartz

As a society and as individuals we’re beginning to know the ravages and costs of Alzheimer’s all too well. The costs of care keep getting higher and are expected to skyrocket. The toll on families and relationships is even more tragic.

Last month, the Alzheimer’s Association hosted a workshop which explored various topics related to the disease.

So what exactly is Alzheimer’s? That was the initial topic discussed by the first presenter, Keith Fargo, PhD, Director of Scientific Programs with the Alzheimer’s Association. People tend to use the terms Alzheimer’s and dementia interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Dementia itself is not a specific disease. Rather, it describes a set of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of those symptoms, accounting for 60-80% of cases. Recent research suggests that many people with dementia have what is known as mixed dementia, meaning they have more than one cause, such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

Dr. Noble went on to describe Alzheimer’s as a “universally fatal brain disease,” saying that the “most important takeaway” from his presentation was that people with Alzheimer’s “will either die from it or with it.” (Nope, not one to sugarcoat the truth). At any rate, it’s a progressive disease that likely begins in the brain 10-20 years before dementia symptoms set in, and it continues to get worse over time.

From there, Dr. Noble gave an overview of the numbers involved. In terms of cost, Alzheimer’s is now the most expensive disease in America, costing more than cancer and heart disease. The cost of care in 2017 is estimated to be about $259 billion. By 2050, that number is expected to rise to $1.1 trillion.

More important than the dollars, are the 5.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s today. And that number is expected to be at least 13.8 million by 2050. Much of that will be driven by an aging population. Furthermore, an estimated 700,000 people in the US aged 65 and older will die with Alzheimer’s, making it the 6th leading cause of death. (In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association thinks it’s under-counted). Of the top ten killers, Alzheimer’s is the only one that can’t be prevented, cured, or even slowed. Between the years 2000-2014, there was an 89% increase in Alzheimer’s as a cause of death.

Okay, that’s the bad news. Admittedly, pretty bad. Yet Dr. Fargo sees reason for hope in the midst of it all. Consider many of the other leading causes of death. HIV used to be an absolute death sentence. Progress has been made with many other diseases as well. When we get serious as a society, we begin to make progress. Dr. Fargo expects to see similar advances in terms of Alzheimer’s in the coming years.

Until then, make do with the many resources we do have. If you are a caregiver, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. As we’ve mentioned in this space before, reach out for help, including, of course, to the Alzheimer’s Association. We’ll have more from what we learned at the workshop in next month’s article.