Alzheimer’s planning will pay off as silver tsunami hits

A troublesome “silver tsunami” is coming, as baby boomers age and double the population of older adults over the next few decades. As that wave washes over the United States, it will bring numerous social issues, including crushing health care concerns.

The medical community is particularly concerned about the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease. It already has more than 5 million Americans in its grip, costing taxpayers an estimated $2 trillion over the next decade. During the silver tsunami, those numbers will explode.

To head off a social and financial calamity, Congress passed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, out of which a National Alzheimer’s Plan has just been developed and launched by the federal Health and Human Services Department.

The plan’s lofty goal is a commitment to stop the disease, and related dementias, by 2025.

The key elements of the plan include upgrading the training of long-term caregivers and improving support for informal caregivers. When families assume the primary caregiving role, the disease extracts a terrible price. A study has shown that one-third of family caregivers fall into depression.

The plan will also let local jurisdictions track the incidence of the disease and report those numbers to a national database. Monitoring the prevalence of Alzheimer’s will help agencies apply resources effectively.

One of the important aspects of the plan is to correct misconceptions about the disease, which may help eliminate some of the stigma surrounding Alzheimer’s.

The most ambitious goal is to eliminate Alzheimer’s in 13 years. To begin, the plan is funding two clinical trials. One is an $8 million test of an insulin nasal spray, and the other is a prevention trial that may prove effective for individuals genetically predisposed to developing the disease.

Separate from the national plan, but encouraging to attacking the disease, is a recent discovery of a rare gene mutation that appears to protect people from Alzheimer’s. In a study of 1,795 Icelanders, researchers found that 1 percent had a genetic variation that slows the buildup of a protein in the brain and are 81 percent less likely to get Alzheimer’s after age 85.

The key finding is the potential link between the protein – a kind of plaque on the brain – and the disease.

Scientists hope they can develop drugs to stop the protein from growing, thus stopping or slowing the onset of the disease.

It’s encouraging that the Obama administration and Congress have committed to addressing Alzheimer’s. But for real progress to occur, elected officials at all levels, industry leaders and advocacy groups must rally behind the plan.

Now is not the time to cut funding to fight this disease. Setting aside the heartbreaking impact on tens of millions of baby boomers’ family members, the looming health care costs may be unbearable.

With committed investment in the national plan, perhaps the nation that eradicated polio can work its magic again.

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