The figure cited above—roughly 259,000,000,000 dollars—is the amount that is expected to be spent on Alzheimer’s disease this year. While this will continue to be good news for the care industry, it is bad news for Medicare and Medicaid. Last year, for every $100 spent on research funding on Alzheimer’s, $16,000 was siphoned off to care for people with the disease. This year, the proportion of people on Medicare with Alzheimer’s is roughly one in five. And projections suggest that by 2050, the proportion of people on Medicare will have doubled to 38 percent.
These sobering numbers, presented at the national meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association on March 29, might have been cause for despair. But the mood was hopeful, in part because the disease is better understood than it has ever been. During last year’s contentious election cycle, the Alzheimer’s Association’s lobbying arm, the Alzheimer’s Impact Movement (AIM) highlighted two senators up for re-election—Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican, and Patty Murray, of Washington, a Democrat. Both were reelected. Behind their advocacy, the two senators managed to obtain a $350 million increase during fiscal 2016. And in the House, Democrat Nita Lowey of New York and Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma led the effort.
But funding was not the only objective. During the three days, several speakers described how Alzheimer’s had affected them personally. One of the most powerful messages came from Maria Shriver, the daughter of Eunice Kennedy and Sargent Shriver—an essential figure in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Shriver recalled her father as an “idealistic, intelligent, optimistic” man. He was deeply involved in the 1960s policy that came to be known as the “War on Poverty,” and, more broadly, one of the most ambitious social legislative agendas in American history. Yet by the time he was dying of Alzheimer’s in 2011 at 95, he could no longer recognize his loved ones.
Speaking before the Special Committee 0n Aging in the Capitol, Shriver noted that her father loved his work. “He loved working this building and he was really good at it,” Shriver said. “He knew every senator and representative and congressman by name. If he were here today, he’d know everything about each one of you: about your careers, your interests, your politics, your families—and, yes, your soft spots. So imagine how painful it was to watch when this walking encyclopedia of a man went from knowing every fact about everything that had ever happened…to not knowing what a spoon or a fork was, or even what my name was, let alone his own.”
The statistics are overwhelming, perhaps numbingly so, and even more so for people of color. African-American women are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as white women are. Latinas are at higher risk as well. And women of all ethnicities account for 65 percent of cases of the disease.
As I was listening to Shriver’s testimony, it occurred to me that Alzheimer’s may be one of the rare issues in which partisan rancor in Congress does not dominate. Sure, there may be deficit hawks who have qualms about throwing money at such a huge problem, but few diseases disturb the public the way that Alzheimer’s does. I hope that Susan Collins, the moderate Senate Republican from Maine who chairs the Committee on Aging, can succeed in channeling funding in a manner that will, in fact, really make a difference.