Each year Alzheimer’s disease can cause financial hardships for families with loved ones that are affected by the condition.
In the United States, millions of baby boomers are becoming at risk for the disease. And the financial impact on the country will be astronomical, experts warn.
“All the Medicare, Medicaid, and healthcare costs are going to devastate us financially, and we’re just not going to be able to handle it,” Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, told Healthline.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2016 the country spent $236 billion caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Over two-thirds of these costs were borne by Medicare and Medicaid.
Total healthcare spending in the United States for this incurable disease is projected to jump to $1 trillion per year by mid-century.
Some fear that, unless the government greatly increases Alzheimer’s research funding — and quickly — the disease will overwhelm the healthcare system much sooner.
“If you start trying to calculate when we’re going to hit that tipping point where Medicare and Medicaid are going to be overtaken by Alzheimer’s, it’s not so far away,” said Tanzi. “It could be within five to 10 years, depending upon how many of these baby boomers start showing symptoms.”
Even if a treatment is found soon, people who have already started down the path of this progressive brain disorder may not benefit.
“For people who are in their 70s or 80s now, and on their way to Alzheimer’s, even if [scientists] came up with a treatment tomorrow, it’s probably not going to really help those people. It’s a little bit too late for them,” Elizabeth Arledge, award-winning director of the new documentary “Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts,” told Healthline.
These patients will need intensive, and expensive, care for years to come — adding to the impact on Medicare and Medicaid.
The PBS documentary will air at 10 p.m. (ET) on Wednesday.
Burden on healthcare system
Like Arledge’s 2004 film about Alzheimer’s, “The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer's,” her new film, for which she also wrote and serves as producer, weaves together expert commentary with personal stories from around the country — but with a different focus and a bigger sense of urgency.
“We tell these stories through the experiences of families and through individuals,” said Arledge, “but we wanted to focus a little less on that and a little more on the public policy disaster that is looming if we don’t change the trajectory of the epidemic.”
Right now, that trajectory looks like a public health “tidal wave” about to hit the country.
“By mid-century there could be as many as 16 million people living with this disease in the United States,” Matthew Baumgart, senior director of public policy for the Alzheimer's Association, told Healthline.
These are just the people with visible symptoms of the disease.
“If you start to calculate how many have Alzheimer’s pathology on their way to symptoms,” said Tanzi, “Ten or 15 years from now, the number [of people affected] probably goes up to at least 25 or 30 million.”
The length of time people live with Alzheimer’s, and the intensity of the care needed later on, makes this one of the costliest diseases in the country — and one that could bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid.
More research funding needed
Experts say the key to getting a handle on the Alzheimer’s epidemic is to find new ways to treat and prevent it.
“Addressing the future solvency of Medicare and Medicaid is going to require addressing Alzheimer’s disease,” said Baumgart. “That’s why research is so important because we can actually save Medicare and Medicaid money by investing in research today.”
Government funding for Alzheimer’s disease research, though, has lagged far behind what is spent on other diseases, although there have been signs of progress in recent years.
“The government has largely been asleep at the wheel about this,” said Tanzi. “They’re starting to wake up, you know. They raised our paltry half a billion dollars of funding up to about a billion now.”
In comparison, in 2017 the NIH allocated $6 billion for cancer research and $3 billion for HIV and AIDS.
Tanzi, though, estimates that heading off the Alzheimer’s epidemic would require much more — along the lines of $10 billion in research funding.
Some might balk at that kind of up-front investment, but this approach has helped with other diseases.
“Government — whatever people think about it — has actually worked in the area of medical research,” said Baumgart. “Because of the research funding that has been given over the years to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and HIV and AIDS, you see demonstrable progress. Deaths from those diseases have dropped in the last 15 years — and in some cases, dropped significantly.”
Tanzi also says that tackling Alzheimer’s will mean stopping it earlier.
This has worked for heart disease, where doctors screen people early for risk factors — like high cholesterol — and treat those before someone has a heart attack or congestive heart failure.
It’s also worked with early screening and treatment of cancer — rather than waiting for a person to develop a large tumor or organ failure.
“If you want to stop this disease — eradicate this disease — you have to take the same approach we take in cancer and heart disease,” said Tanzi. “Which is detect early on that the pathology has begun and then stave it off so you never get symptoms.”