By Norbert Herzog & David Niesel

As people age, they begin to worry about developing dementia and its most common cause, Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that can affect your cognitive abilities, the ability to function in daily life and orientation. If that’s not devastating enough, those with Alzheimer’s only live four years to eight years on average after diagnosis.
In America, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death. Today 5.1 million of those 65 or older are living with this disease, a number that is only expected to grow as the population ages — by 2050 it is projected to affect 13.5 million of those 65 or older. The few drugs readily available only moderate the symptoms, as there is no way to cure, slow or prevent Alzheimer’s.

Recently, the Alzheimer’s Association published a report called “Changing the Trajectory of Alzheimer’s disease: How a Treatment by 2025 Saves Lives and Dollars.” It focuses on the costs associated with a theoretical treatment that could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s for five years. If such a thing were discovered, it could have a huge impact on people’s lives and their finances.

Since Alzheimer’s is a disease of older Americans, treatments for it are mostly funded by Medicaid and Medicare. Currently, Medicare covers 80 percent of the total costs of Alzheimer’s care in America, which equates to $153 billion. By 2050, the total costs of caring for those with Alzheimer’s is expected to rise to $1.1 trillion, with Medicare allocating one-third of all its expenses to treating it.

Within the Alzheimer’s population, a higher proportion will be in severe stages of the disease by 2050, as opposed to early or moderate stages. In the early stage of the disease, people can continue everyday functions and may appear symptom-free. They do have deficits in their abilities to think and learn, but the financial impact and burden on family members are low. In the moderate stage, memory lapses, inability to express thoughts and confusion become apparent. Finally, in the severe stage, people have trouble taking care of themselves and require extensive daily care. In 2050, almost half of those affected will be in the severe stage.

The Alzheimer’s Association presents a case for funding biomedical research now, before the human and economic costs can be realized. For the sake of argument, they describe a hypothetical new treatment that would delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by five years. If such a thing were available by 2025, it would save $220 billion in its first five years. By 2050, 6 million fewer people would be affected by Alzheimer’s, saving families $90 billion in health care costs and the federal government $367 billion. Even if such research costs $2 billion a year starting today, a way to delay Alzheimer’s by just five years would pay for itself within three years.

Research from very basic studies on the brain to translational research leading to new therapeutics and early diagnostics are desperately needed. There are many promising studies that suggest a delay in the progression or even cure for Alzheimer’s are possible.

Professors Norbert Herzog and David Niesel are biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at medicaldiscoverynews.com.