The Cost of Alzheimer’s

Dramatic gains in human longevity have resulted in live expectancies into the 70s, 80s and 90s - with an associated increase in Alzheimer's incidence. Alzheimer's care is already costing the country hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and with rising numbers of cases, the disease threatens to bankrupt national health care systems.

Alzheimer’s disease is among the leading causes of death in the United States. While deaths from other major diseases have declined significantly in recent years, deaths from Alzheimer’s are on the rise, with a 68 percent jump from 2000 to 2010.

The risk of getting the disease increases dramatically with age. About 10 percent of 75-year-olds have Alzheimer’s; some 20 percent of 85-year-olds have it; and about half of everyone older than 85 has it. No one is immune, though certain genetic factors can reduce the risk in some and increase it in others. There is no cure or effective treatment. As of 2012, an estimated 5.4 million Americans had Alzheimer’s disease. This includes 5.2 million people ages 65 and older, and some 200,000 patients younger than 65 who have early-onset Alzheimer’s. Payments for care in 2012 were estimated to be $226 billion—and more than 15 million Americans provided unpaid care for persons with Alzheimer’s. Without a cure, these figures will nearly triple by the year 2050.

The emotional and physical cost always has been devastating to every family dealing with Alzheimer’s. Now, with aging populations, the disease also threatens to engulf the health care system of every industrialized nation. Even so, research to cure Alzheimer’s is extremely underfunded. Currently, the government spends only $936 million per year on research— far less than what is being spent on care.

Even with adequate funding, curing this disease will not be easy. Alzheimer’s pathology starts 15 years or more before symptoms become noticeable, and scientists now think we need to tackle the disease in these pre-symptomatic stages to effectively fight it. Because many factors contribute to the development of the pathology, successful treatment may take the form of a “cocktail” of drugs, which target the disease at different stages of its progression.