Industry Voices—Curing Alzheimer's could save America $8T in coming decades

Kenneth Thorpe, Ph.D. 

Imagine waking up one morning and not knowing whether you're in your own home, let alone your hometown. The faces around you are unfamiliar, and you don't know who to ask for help—or what to say. 

This is a daily reality for more than 5.7 million Americans. These people suffer from Alzheimer's disease, a debilitating, ultimately fatal chronic condition that destroys nerve cells in the brain. It is much more than memory loss and is not a "normal" part of aging. Currently, there is no cure.

Alzheimer's disease takes a huge toll on patients and our health system. It also significantly impacts caregivers, who are often unpaid family members who sacrifice their own well-being to tend to their loved ones.

This financial and human toll can no longer be dismissed. It's time to intensify our efforts to develop new treatments and cures. 

Every 65 seconds, someone in America develops the disease, and the prognosis isn't good. The disease kills one in three patients. Between 2000 and 2015, deaths from Alzheimer's skyrocketed more than 120%. It's currently the sixth leading cause of death in the country. Meanwhile, deaths from other ailments, like heart disease, have dropped.

Alzheimer's disease is increasingly costly and in 2018 alone cost $277 billion. Between 2017 and 2030, Americans will cumulatively spend $7.7 trillion on the disease, accounting for both medical and unpaid caregiving costs, according to a recent study from my organization, the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.

Family members and friends provide staggering amounts of uncompensated care to Alzheimer's patients. More than 16 million Americans act as unpaid caregivers today. Among caregivers with full- or part-time jobs, nearly three in five have missed work to care for their loved one, according to a 2018 report from the Alzheimer's Association. More than one in six had to stop working entirely.

America's Alzheimer's caregivers dedicated more than 18 billion hours to helping their loved ones in 2015, and the value of this care exceeded $232 billion. And these costs are rising and the value of unpaid care will reach $4.5 trillion nationwide by 2030.

To reduce this toll, we must invest more in the research and development of new Alzheimer's cures and treatments. 

Fortunately, the public sector is doubling down on its efforts. The government is marshaling public support for more research by designating June as Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month. Additionally, Congress increased Alzheimer's research funding at the National Institutes of Health by $400 million from 2016 to 2017.

RELATED: Alzheimer’s Association Report: Early diagnosis of the disease could save $7T or more in costs

Private companies are also forging ahead to find a cure. Nearly 100 potential new treatments are in clinical trials today.

Universities and civic organization are doing their part to fund research and development, too. Across the United States, more than 630 cities will host a Walk to End Alzheimer's later this year which will raise funds to support the Alzheimer's Association care and research efforts. 

And while any research breakthroughs could be momentous, simply diagnosing patients earlier and more accurately could save almost $8 trillion in medical and care costs over the coming decades.

And should a breakthrough treatment be found, within just five years 2.6 million Americans could avoid an Alzheimer's diagnosis. As a result, the nation would save $650 billion on healthcare costs and unpaid caregiving.

We must prioritize Alzheimer's research. Doing so will save lives, reduce our nation's healthcare costs, and give valuable time back with our loved one while lessening the load on caregivers.

Kenneth E. Thorpe, Ph.D., is a professor of health policy at Emory University and chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.