National Alzheimer's Plan Faces Long Journey

A draft plan for battling Alzheimer’s highlights the huge challenge of this growing health crisis.

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Alzheimer's is being called the "baby boomer's disease," as growing numbers of boomers reach the ages at which many will contract this devastating illness. Alzheimer's erodes and can eventually destroy memory. It inflicts enormous financial caregiving costs on families and society. But it reserves its biggest toll for the emotions and relationships among family and loved ones. With no cure, Alzheimer's can be a long and cruel death sentence.

[See Pat Summitt, at 59, Takes on Alzheimer's.]

Unlike most other major diseases and causes of death, the impact of Alzheimer's is getting worse, not better. In its report last week on the causes of death in 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 83,308 Americans died from Alzheimer's, making it the nation's sixth leading cause of death. Heart disease killed more than seven times that number and remains the nation's leading cause of death, followed closely by cancer. But while death rates from heart disease and cancer are dropping, the death rate from Alzheimer's rose 3.3 percent in 2010.

The numbers will only get bigger. "There are no cures out there, and there are no survivors," notes Dr. Ronald Petersen, head of the Mayo Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. According to the Alzheimer's Association, 1 in 8 Americans age 65 and older—more than five million—now have Alzheimer's, and another 10 million baby boomers will develop it.

In the spring of 2010, rising optimism about possible ways to avoid or defer Alzheimer's was dashed when the government convened a major fact-finding conference on the disease. The draft report of its findings said, "There is currently no evidence considered to be of even moderate scientific quality supporting the association of any modifiable factor (nutritional supplements, herbal preparations, dietary factors, prescription or nonprescription drugs, social or economic factors, medical condition, toxins, environmental exposures) with reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease."

[See What to do About Retiree Healthcare Costs.]

Alzheimer's experts, however, are quick to note that the absence of "scientific quality" proof does not mean that there is no way to halt or avoid the disease. Rising evidence points to great promise from changing physical and mental lifestyle behaviors. In the near future, it's expected that this evidence will be developed into acceptable scientific proof of steps that can be taken to combat various forms of cognitive impairment.

"We are making some headway on lifestyle factors," Petersen says. There is a growing body of observational evidence that the disease can be deferred and, in some cases, possibly avoided, by the types of healthy living activities that long have been recommended for improved overall quality of life.

In late 2010, Congress enacted the National Alzheimer's Project Act, which will lead to annual reports, beginning this year, that catalog the state of Alzheimer's research and treatment. It will raise the profile of the disease and, supporters hope, lead to significant funding increases for research. Petersen chairs the act's advisory panel, which is meeting today and tomorrow in Washington to discuss a new draft framework for a national Alzheimer's plan.

[See 7 Lifestyle Behaviors Linked to Alzheimer's.]

The framework has five goals:

1. Prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer's disease by 2025

2. Enhance care quality and efficiency

3. Expand patient and family support

4. Enhance public awareness and engagement

5. Improve data to track progress

The framework's 12-page outline of strategies to achieve these goals sets forth an impressive yet daunting agenda. The benefits are enormous, and will appear more clearly as the dreadful impact of Alzheimer's becomes more widely understood.

The costs, however, are equally enormous. Think hundreds of billions of dollars. Then think of the enormous financial problems already facing Medicare and other health entitlement programs. Where will the money be found? This is the kind of issue that our national leaders should be discussing. Instead, we will endure another polarizing national election and a Congress that cannot even agree on when to meet, let alone grapple with, serious social challenges.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller