By Janice Lloyd
New reports that the number of Alzheimer's cases in the USA will likely triple to 13.8 million by 2050 are raising concerns about the nation's ability to afford care.
Care for patients with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia will increase 500% by 2050, reaching $1.1 trillion, according to the Alzheimer's Association. This is in 2012 dollars. About 70% of costs for Alzheimer's care are billed to Medicare and Medicaid.??
Patients with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia will spend three times more on health care than patients with other types of illnesses, the association says. Medicare patients with Alzheimer's and other dementias spent $43,847 on health care and long-term care services, compared to $13,879 spent by patients without those illnesses, the association said in a 2012 report.
For government health care programs already facing economic strain, these estimates are daunting, researchers and advocates say.
"If you think you're going to solve our fiscal entitlement process without addressing one of the underlying causes (Alzheimer's costs) you're not getting to the heart of the problem,'' says Robert Egge, vice president of public affairs for the Alzheimer's Association.
Alzheimer's is an incurable, degenerative brain-wasting disease that robs a person of memory, eventually erasing personality and making even routine tasks such as dressing and bathing impossible. They also spend more time hospitalized than people without these illnesses.
"The bottom line is when you have a chronic condition and you add dementia, you have higher costs,'' says Julie Bynum, a physician and associate director of the Center for Health Policy at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., who gathered data for the Alzheimer's Association report.
"They can't self-manage their medications or monitor their diets and watch out for things like how much salt or sugar they're eating. If they also have diabetes or hypertension, two other conditions common in the older population, they need others to take care of them," she says.
A federally-funded report published last week in the medical journal Neurology said the number of people with Alzheimer's is expected to rise from 5 million to 13.8 million by 2050.
Many costs associated with Alzheimer's care are not reimbursed. Out-of-pocket costs for a family with a loved one who has dementia were $8,216 compared to $2,500 for patients with other types of conditions, according to a report last week in the journalAlzheimer's & Dementia.
Amy Steele, 34, of Oklahoma City had to quit her job and cash in her 401(k) in 2010 to help care for her mother, who is 60 and has early Alzheimer's. She recently moved her mother, who is divorced, from Dallas to an assisted-living facility near Oklahoma City. She also has been helping younger siblings with college expenses since her mother is no longer able to do so.
"I'm not going to be able to start saving again for a while,'' Steele says. "When my mother requires a higher level of care, I'll need to help supplement that and also help with her medical expenses. It's been really hard."
The research dollars for Alzheimer's are in their "infancy,'' says Jennifer Weuve, an assistant professor of medicine at Rush Institute for Healthy Living in Chicago.
The government last year set a goal of developing preventive treatment for Alzheimer's by 2025 and increased research funding through the National Institutes of Health to $606 million last year, exceeding $500 million for the first time. But it still lags behind funding for other diseases: $6 billion is spent on cancer research, $3 billion on research for HIV/AIDS.
"From polio to cancer and from heart disease to HIV/AIDS, we see that a commitment to research investment and targeted innovation on high-cost diseases is a proven deficit reduction strategy,'' says George Vradenburg, chairman of USAgainstAlzheimers, an advocacy group.
President Obama in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday highlighted the importance of Alzheimer's research, and asked Congress not to cut funding. "Our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's," he said.
Several trials are getting underway that would use drugs to prevent the disease from occurring in people who are genetically predisposed to early-onset Alzheimer's. One high-profile name with the condition is University of Tennessee Hall of Fame basketball coach Pat Summitt, who stepped down from her job after disclosing her diagnosis in 2011.