D. Dowd Muska


Mobilizing for the War on Alzheimer’s

May 16, 2013

Advocacy groups don’t harvest donations -- and don’t draw media attention -- by underplaying the gravity of their missions.

Ideologues, social reformers, and busybodies exaggerate, but so do commercial interests. (In real life, gray hair doesn’t make a man undateable.) And governments employ an army of flacks to weave tales of the tragedies that will transpire if “public services” are cut.

The Alzheimer’s Association is a charity that needn’t resort to hyperbole. The enemy it faces is horrifying enough, all by itself.

Alzheimer’s disease, the nonprofit grimly summarizes, “destroys brain cells and causes memory changes, erratic behaviors and loss of body functions. It slowly and painfully takes away a person’s identity, ability to connect with others, think, eat, talk, walk and find his or her way home.”

The most common form of dementia afflicts 11 percent of Americans 65 and older. For those north of 85, the share is 32 percent.

Alzheimer’s disease was an unimpressive killer in the 1970s, but it now ranks sixth -- behind heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, stroke, and accidents -- on the U.S. cause-of-death list. The malady may climb a notch or two, with better record-keeping. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that while some victims perish from unrelated causes, “many of them die … from conditions in which Alzheimer’s was a contributing cause, such as pneumonia.”

Figures from reliable sources vary, but Alzheimer’s disease imposes a staggering economic burden. Last month, a RAND Corporation analysis put 2010’s direct-care cost for dementia at $109 billion. That’s higher than the bill for heart ailments ($102 billion) and cancer ($77 billion). And when “the monetary value of informal care is included,” the bill rises to between $159 and $215 billion.

A great deal of the disorder’s savagery is unquantifiable. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that 61 percent of family caregivers rated their emotional stress “as high or very high,” most experienced “a good amount” to “a great deal” of financial strain, and 43 percent considered the physical toll of caregiving to be “high to very high.”

The situation is dire, and it’s going to get spectacularly worse. By midcentury, some believe, the direct costs of Alzheimer’s disease will surpass $1 trillion. By then, most of the Baby Boomers will be gone. But the relentless march of medical breakthroughs will doubtless continue. The CDC projects that 2009’s newborns will live to an average of 78.5 years. It sounds low. A European study concluded that “most babies born since 2000” in developed countries can expect to “celebrate their 100th birthdays.”

America’s dimmest elites have concocted a solution to the Alzheimer’s Apocalypse: Hurl taxpayer money at it. Pick a “successful” federal extravaganza -- the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, Apollo -- and it’s being used to justify massive subsidies to Alzheimer’s research.

Maria Shriver and Sandra Day O’Connor, in a December 2010 op-ed published in The Washington Post, wrote, “Let us set before the nation the goal of defeating Alzheimer’s within the next decade.” In May 2012, the White House announced the “National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease,” a congressionally mandated “roadmap that will help us meet our goal to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease by 2025.”

Republics of free men don’t establish “national plans” to address anything, but the scheme is understandable, given the illness’s dreadful scope. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that a politically overseen mustering of national resources will render a solution to Alzheimer’s.

For every moonshot, the feds have bungled dozens of science-and-technology ventures. Miracle cures aren’t line items in a budget, and they don’t honor deadlines. Alzheimer’s has been stubbornly resistant to assaults from medicine’s brightest minds, wealthiest corporations, and biggest bureaucracies. Much remains unknown about the condition -- including what causes it -- and billions of dollars have been lost on failed treatments. The human brain deserves its reputation as the most complex thing in the universe.

We all have a role to play in answering Alzheimer’s challenge. Private research institutes need more contributions. Nursing homes need more volunteers. Family caregivers deserve physical, emotional, and financial support. Siblings in their 30s and 40s should develop strategies for what to do about mom and dad. A broad taxpayer awakening will be necessary to cut the cost of government, spurring the economic growth that will enable near-universal purchases of long-term-care policies. (Slashing corporate taxes would permit pharmaceutical manufacturers to spend more on clinical trials.) Activism must include immigration reform, too -- the eldercare industry desperately needs millions of new workers.

Alzheimer’s disease is too serious a matter to entrust to the federal government.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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