Preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease by 2025 topped
the discussion at a gathering of policymakers,
health officials, patient advocates, and medical experts in Washington, D.C., on
Thursday. The group convened for a briefing on America’s Alzheimer’s goals.
disease is the only leading cause of death in the United States that cannot yet
be prevented, slowed, or cured. In this country alone, 5.4 million people are currently living with
the disease, a number projected to swell to 13.8 million by 2050 if Alzheimer’s
is left unchecked.
The consensus of
the expert panel is that this goal can be achieved. But opinions differ about
how far progress has come and where future efforts should be focused.
Tillis (R-N.C.), a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, believes that battling Alzheimer’s takes
an approach that involves both the head and the heart. He is a strong advocate
for investing in a cure for the disease, and he pushed for greater funding of
“There is a
compelling public policy challenge that we have to recognize and solve,” said
Tillis. “The reason we have to put research into diseases like Alzheimer’s is not
only for people who have it now, but for people who will have it in the future.
We will get to a point to where if we don’t invest in research and try to find
treatments, if not a cure, then it will become one of the single greatest cost
drivers at the state and federal level.
“If we don’t
focus on this now, Alzheimer’s disease is going to become an economic drain
that will almost be impossible to fund, and we potentially would no longer be
able to provide the care that is needed,” he said.
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Energy and
Commerce Committee, believes that Alzheimer’s disease can be cured if it is
made a national priority. He thinks the economic impact and number of people
affected by the disease should prioritize the work being done in the House and
Senate “to make certain that we move forward aggressively, progressively, and
with the earnest intentions of conquering this disease.”
“Diseases affecting the brain haven’t received the kind of
passionate resolve or attention that diseases like cancer or AIDS have,” said
Tonko. “The brain is the least studied organ. However, with the onslaught of
baby boomers coming into the senior generation, we’re seeing more and more
attention being paid to Alzheimer’s."
The fact that the economic impact of Alzheimer’s is
projected to run to 1 trillion dollars by 2050 is startling enough to get
people in the halls of Congress motivated, Tonko said.
“Research can conquer A to Z—Alzheimer’s to the Zika virus,”
he said. “We have intellectual capacity in this nation beyond any other. And
for us not to harvest that investment into advancements and scientific progress
is immoral. We are spending our research dollars well, but we haven’t invested
Paul Aisen, MD, director of the Alzheimer’s Therapeutic
Research Institute at the University of Southern California Keck School of
Medicine, said that key to developing effective treatments for Alzheimer’s is
understanding the science of the disease.
“The science of Alzheimer’s disease has progressed
spectacularly in the last two decades,” he said. “We now understand the
biochemical and molecular basis of the disease. We know what’s driving it, and
we can see the proper targets for therapeutic intervention. We know what
enzymes and what molecules need to be attacked. And we have very promising
specific treatments to attack those targets.
“We have all the tools we need to make major progress—making
2025 a very realistic goal,” Aisen said. “All the pieces are in place, so we
are very optimistic.”
Maria Carrillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s
Association, said that despite the progress there are still a lot of
challenges. “For the past 15 years, Alzheimer’s disease has not been funded at
the federal level to the extent it should have been,” she said. “With about
$450 million dedicated to it per year, it has been a time of austerity for Alzheimer’s
research, and that has had a big impact.
“What’s exciting is that the federal government is
responding, and we have gotten additional dollars—almost a billion a year for
Alzheimer’s. That’s still not where we should be, however. We should be at $2
billion. It’s hopeful to see that science is converging with federal support.”
Linda Elam is deputy assistant secretary for disability,
aging, and long term care policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services and a member of the Advisory Council on Alzheimer’s Research, Care,
and Services. She said that the federal government as well as the states face
an enormous task in dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.
“We need to balance the push to find a cure by looking at
issues around care for the 5.5 million people in the United States who have the
disease and the people who care for them,” she said.
“Over $100 billion now goes into treatment that’s largely
long term care, because we don’t have an effective medical treatment. The
economic impact includes another $100 billion in unpaid care. That does not
include the $50 billion in lost or foregone wages. Once you go deep, you see that
this disease is more expensive than people imagine.”
Another factor is
caring for the caregiver and the family, according to Elam. “We should take the
most aggressive actions toward finding a cure while also ensuring that we’re
caring for the people who have the condition now,” she said. “We need to look
at methods of care that best serve people, that help caregivers avoid burnout,
and that attend to the health and well-being of the whole family.”
According to Elam, the role of Medicaid in long term care is
something that is often underappreciated. Dementias are among the primary
reasons that people seek long term care, and Medicaid plays an important role
in paying for that care, she said. “We have some changes that will be coming,
so it will be interesting to see how approaches to funding Medicaid will impact
care for the people who need it,” she said.
Teresa Osborne, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of
Aging, stressed that Alzheimer’s affects all Americans. “This is a national
plan—not a federal plan, not a state plan, not a local plan,” she said. “As
Americans, we all have a stake in it. There are very few people who don’t have
a family member or neighbor or friend or relative who has been impacted by
Alzheimer’s disease. It is critically important that we have the opportunity to
partner with experts in the field and best leverage our resources.”
A video replay of the briefing, sponsored by The Hill, is available online.