March 8th, 2012
12:01 AM ET
Caring for the estimated 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer's disease is not just a medical crisis, it's also an economic one according to a new report released Thursday. The Alzheimer's Association's "2012 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures" finds that the cost of caring for patients with Alzheimer's and other dementias will total $200 billion this year and is projected to increase to $1.1 trillion a year by 2050.
"That is real money, even in government terms," says Dr. William Thies, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer with the Alzheimer's Association.
"It's unsustainable, we can't pay that, and if we get to that stage [of $1.1 trillion in costs per year], we just won't be able to take care of people."
Medicare and Medicaid currently pay roughly 70% of the costs associated with caring for Alzheimer's patients, which adds up to $140 billion. But those costs do not include treating the many other chronic conditions these patients often have, some of which can be exacerbated by having this form of dementia. For example, the report says a senior with Alzheimer's and diabetes costs Medicare 81% more than a senior citizen who only has diabetes.
Dementia can also inhibit a person's ability to manage their other conditions and that additional complication can also drive up related costs.
"If you take a person with undiagnosed cognitive impairment, they'll get information [from their doctor], go home, and then forget it all," says Thies.
"And then the person is next seen in a [medical] crisis and there's a lot of intensive high-tech therapy that has to be delivered."
Compounding that, the Alzheimer's Association estimates that one of every seven patients, or 800,000 people, who have Alzheimer's lives alone and up to half of them don't have an identifiable caregiver.
"Frequently people who fall in to this category... don't have a diagnosis," says Thies. "The numbers are daunting."
At the same time, the number of caregivers is equally staggering. According to the report, there are 15.2 million family members and friends of Alzheimer's patients caring for more than 4 million people with the disease. Those caregivers provide 17.4 billion hours of unpaid care valued at more than $200 billion dollars.
"The best piece of advice I would give to [a caregiver] is to get informed about the disease," says Thies. "Educate yourself because people who know about the disease do better. And a close second to that is look for help. It's natural human nature to say – this is my problem, my family, so I'm going to deal with this – but we know help is really critical."
Of the ten most common causes of death in the United States, Alzheimer's is the only one for which there is no cure or means of prevention. The Alzheimer's Association says someone is diagnosed with the disease every 68 seconds. And while there is no definitive evidence that brain games and mental stimulation can protect the brain from Alzheimer's, Dr. Gary Small, Director of UCLA's Longevity Center, says there are non-genetic factors that may influence whether someone develops dementia.
"Choices we make every day have a major impact on how our brains age," says Small. "In fact, physical exercise probably has the most compelling evidence that it can lower the risk of Alzheimer's."
"We're not saying that we can definitely prevent it in everyone, but the goal is to stave off the symptoms, sometimes for years, and for many people, that may mean never getting the symptoms in their lifetime."
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