Every 67 seconds, someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It is no longer considered another ailment of getting older, but rather an epidemic because of the staggering increase in Alzheimer’s diagnoses, particularly among women. Statistics show that one in eight women will be diagnosed with the disease. With Baby Boomers aging, this number is estimated to rise to one in six women, compared with one in 11 men who will be affected by the disease. Alzheimer’s robs loved ones of their memories and eventually the capacity to function. It is just as detrimental to the individual with Alzheimer’s as to the family members who are left to take care of them.
The epidemic could be just as deadly to the healthcare system. If nothing is done before the impending influx of women who will be diagnosed with the disease in the upcoming years, “We risk bankrupting our current healthcare system,” said Jessica Langbaum, principal scientist at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix. “If we do nothing and maintain the status quo, we will not be able to handle the surge of patients with Alzheimer’s because we are not equipped for it now.”
Medical experts fear that the current healthcare system will cripple under the stress caring for the increasing number of people who will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Already, the statistics show that women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than they are to develop breast cancer.
PAYING THE BILL
There are 78 million Baby Boomers in the U.S. Each day, about 10,000 of them turn 65, which is the at-risk age for being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The majority of them are women.
“We are already starting to see an increase in women with Alzheimer’s,” said Lori Whitesell, owner of SYNERGY Home Care.
This can only complicate the expenses and funds being paid by Medicare and Medicaid, which are already expected to be responsible for a $150 billion bill this year to treat patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The national cost of caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia is projected to reach $214 billion within the next two years. As of right now, each family can expect to pay about $56,800 a year for a family member with Alzheimer’s, making it the most expensive disease in the country.
In 2011, President Barack Obama recognized the growing concern and signed into law the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA). This project is designed to create and maintain an integrated national plan to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. The plan is to coordinate research and services across all of the federal agencies that are focusing their energy on the disease, as well as accelerate the development of treatments that would prevent, cure or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
“It’s a race to figure out what to do,” said Bob Roth, managing partner of Cypress HomeCare Solutions, “and, thankfully, everyone is working together.”
NAPA hopes to increase early detection and wants to be able to prevent and effectively treat the disease by 2025.
ARIZONA HIT HARD
Despite the government’s efforts, it is only a matter of time before the epidemic of Alzheimer’s hits America. Out of the 5 million people who currently suffer from Alzheimer’s, 3.2 million are women. In Arizona alone, 11 percent of the seniors have Alzheimer’s. It is the fifth-leading cause of death in the state and it is estimated that in 2014 there will be a total of 120,000 seniors with Alzheimer’s in Arizona. It has been found that more senior citizens die from Alzheimer’s than prostate and breast cancer combined. Alzheimer’s disease is the only cause of death among the Top 10 in the United States that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.
To compound the problem, there are currently not enough care facilities, hospitals or caregivers in the U.S. to help take care of the Baby Boomer generation, which is expected to raise the number of people with Alzheimer’s to 16 million people by 2025.
“The statistics that we have now are probably an underestimation because of the people that are trying to hide the fact that they have the disease,” said Roth, who is also on the board for the Banner Alzheimer’s Foundation.
Roth said many senior citizens are either afraid of what will happen to them or they ignore the symptoms of the disease. Studies have shown that women tend to live longer than men and will be widowed or separated from their families for the last 10 to15 years of their lives, which severely limits the number of people who can help support them.
HARD TO UNDERSTAND
Not only is it hard to know what will happen in the near future with our healthcare system, but the disease itself is still very misunderstood. It is known that Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. In the beginning stages, the memory loss is mild; however, as the illness advances to the later stages, the patient loses the ability to carry on a conversation as well as the loss of motor functions.
Scientists have yet to find the real cause of this disease, but they believe that it starts in the brain cells, also known as neurons. The brain has more than 100 billion neurons that connect with each other to form a communication network. Researchers think that Alzheimer’s is created by an amyloid plaque buildup between the neurons, which prevents the brain cells from working properly. This causes a breakdown of the brain’s communication system and the cells lose the ability to do their job. The cells eventually die and cause irreversible damage to the brain. As the neurons die, the entire brain shrinks from tissue loss. Due to the amount of brain damage, the average person with Alzheimer’s lives about eight years.
Currently, there are 10 million women in the U.S. who have Alzheimer’s or are caring for someone with the disease. Most caregivers are unpaid and work without any support. They usually have to give up their jobs because taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s is a 24-hour-a-day job. There are two and a half times as many women providing intensive care for Alzheimer’s patients than men. Women who take on the role of full-time caregiver are strongly encouraged to use respite care so that they can get the breaks needed to be able to take care of themselves.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
Banner Alzheimer’s Institute is the largest Alzheimer’s research facility in the country. It is recognized as a world leader in brain imaging research. It uses advanced brain imaging techniques that help researchers detect and track any brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s before memory loss and thinking issues arise. On Feb. 7, 2012, the Obama administration announced a historic investment of $156 million to Alzheimer’s research.
“We’re so grateful for the funds that Obama gave us, but we need more,” Langbaum said. ““It’s wonderful that the government has made (Alzheimer’s research) a priority, but a lot needs to happen before we can find a cure or a treatment by the deadline they have set in 2025. Right now, we don’t have the funds to do that.”