Alzheimer's projected to bankrupt Medicare if treatment not found

Published: Mar. 9, 2016 at 11:23 PM MST|Updated: May. 4, 2016 at 11:51 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Alzheimer's epidemic is being called a national crisis that's putting a serious burden on society.

Experts said it is a disease that could end up hurting everyone, even those who do not know anyone with the disease.

Projections are that Alzheimer's will become a trillion dollar disease that will bankrupt Medicare if a treatment is not found.

It's one of the messages heard at the annual Tucson Education Conference on Alzheimer's and Dementia on Wednesday, sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association Desert Southwest Chapter.

Alzheimer's Association officials said Arizona has the second highest growth rate in the country in the number of people who have Alzheimer's and other types of dementia.

They said the death rate from the disease continues to climb in the U.S.

It's the fourth leading cause of death in Arizona, where the death rate has increased 128 percent since 2000.

There were a lot resources for patients and caregivers at the conference, but the one thing everyone is waiting for is a treatment that will not just slow the disease, but stop it.

Alzheimer's is the only leading cause of death that cannot be prevented or cured.

The cost to the patient is devastating and so is the impact on loved ones who care for him or her.

More than 15 million people provide care and/or support for someone with Alzheimer's or related dementia, according to the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.

More people would like to see more money put into research and spending has finally started to grow, but the association considers it still far too little to fight the Alzheimer's epidemic.

At least eight drugs could be on the market in the next five years, but the breakthroughs are in prevention, not in finding a cure, because of the complicated nature and progression of the disease.

"We know now that the changes in the brain start 25 years before your first day of forgetfulness. So, in essence, the dementia is the end of disease. To cure it is to take it as if it was never there. And that's why the big focus is on prevention. We're trying to start the treatments before you get symptoms," said conference presenter Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, Barrow Neurological Institute Director of the Alzheimer's & Memory Disorders Division.

"We would try to identify people who are already having changes in their brain before the emergence of clinical symptoms and try to intervene at that moment and head it off before they'd get the symptoms fully manifested," Sabbagh said.

Here are some statistics from the Alzheimer's Association:

  • Medicare and Medicaid will spent $153 billion on Alzheimer's in 2015 and are projected to spend $765 billion in 2050 if no treatment is found.
  • The Alzheimer's Association said a $2 billion a year federal research investment would be recouped in the first three years after a treatment hits the market.

" We're spending billions of dollars on care and support and only a fraction of dollars into research," said Alzheimer's Association Southern Arizona Regional Director Kelly Raach.

She said long-term care can cost anywhere from $3,000 a month to more than $10,000 a month.

Raach said many things have to change.

She said, in addition to spending more to find a treatment, awareness of the disease must grow.

She said there still is a stigma surrounding the disease.

Plus, Raach said more people need to be diagnosed early enough to get treatment to slow the disease if possible.

"It's estimated that 45 percent of people over the age of 45 are experiencing memory loss and 70 percent of them have not talked to their doctor about it," Raach said.

She said too many people think of Alzheimer's as just a normal part of aging, but that it's not.

Raach said it's not normal to forget who your grandchildren are, to forget how to eat, forget how to bathe.

She said many Alzheimer's patients are diagnosed in their 40s and 50s, so it's not correct to say it's a disease only of much older people.

Gary Gustafson cared for his parents, each of whom had Alzheimer's.

"My dad was at Guadalcanal (during World War II). Saw some really bad action. I never thought I would be changing his diapers in life, but that's what it progresses to in some cases. So it's a real learning curve," Gustafson said.

In his father's case, the disease was genetic.

Several other of Gustafson's relatives have been diagnosed.

He said it can be scary to think about that.

"Every time you forget something, you wonder if now's the time. And a lot of that is just the normal aging process. And that's what I find now, facing what I might face it's important to try to separate what is normal aging process and what happens with your memory and what is part of the disease," Gustafson said.

He cared for his parents for 15 years before they died.

That's why Alzheimer's is called the long goodbye.

Sabbagh said people should look for the first of the new drugs that can slow the disease within a year.

Gustafson said he knew nothing about Alzheimer's when his parents were diagnosed, but he got information and support from the Alzheimer's Association.

There also is a 24-hour helpline for caregivers and patients.

The number is 1-800-272-3900.

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