Alzheimer’s and Its Uncounted Victims–Wall Street Journal

It’s well known that President Ronald Reagan died in 2004 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Yet his death certificate listed pneumonia as the official cause of death. Attributing Alzheimer deaths to other diseases is all too common—and highlights the complicated nature of Alzheimer’s contribution to deaths in the U.S. each year. It also suggests that Alzheimer’s might be a bigger problem than previously thought.

Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that afflicts 5.2 million Americans. It is not an inevitable consequence of aging, but is rather a brain disease responsible for a progression of symptoms from memory impairment to a loss of basic bodily functions, including incontinence and difficulty swallowing. As victims deteriorate, they frequently die of urinary-tract infections, pneumonia or organ failure.

A landmark new study published on March 5 in the journal Neurology by researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago concludes that the number of deaths attributable to Alzheimer’s could be more than six times higher than previously thought—as high as 503,000 in 2010. This would make Alzheimer’s a cancer-size problem.

While deaths each year from cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS began to decline a couple of decades ago, deaths from Alzheimer’s have continued to rise. The advances in prevention strategies and innovative treatments for cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS have saved millions of lives and created untold reductions in the cost of medical care, pain and suffering, while greatly increasing longevity.

The troubling paradox is that the longer we live the higher the risk for developing Alzheimer’s, which is now more costly than cancer or heart disease due to the duration of the disease and its impact on other conditions, according to the Rand Corp. There is not a single drug or combination of drugs that halts or even slows the progression of Alzheimer’s, and more than a dozen potential drugs have failed to emerge from clinical trials in the last 10 years.

If we are going to make meaningful progress against Alzheimer’s, we’re going to have to get bold. We can begin by acknowledging that Alzheimer’s remains dramatically underfunded. Each year Congress invests $5.7 billion in cancer research, $2 billion in cardiovascular disease, and $3 billion in HIV/AIDS research. But Alzheimer’s research receives only around $550 million.

There is a correlation between investing in research and medical breakthroughs. Look at our efforts to combat polio or HIV/AIDS. These diseases received a response from the federal government, industry and nongovernmental organizations commensurate with the threat. This included funding but as importantly across-the-board coordination between government and private industry. Alzheimer’s, which is projected to triple in prevalence by 2050, has not. This means we could potentially see millions of Americans dying each year in the most emotionally draining way possible.

We must escalate the battle against this tragic disease. Since Alzheimer’s is a cancer-size problem, it needs a cancer-size response. The federal government must take the lead by dramatically increasing research funds and mobilizing collaboration between academic research and the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. Until that happens, we’ll continue to watch in horror as this disease claims an increasing number of friends, family and loved ones, including presidents and prime ministers.

Mr. Vradenburg is chairman and co-founder of USAgainstAlzheimer’s. Dr. Prusiner is a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and the author of “Madness and Memory,” coming from Yale University Press next month.


~ by Butch on March 19, 2014.

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