A Bold New Campaign in the Fight against Alzheimer’s

Keith Fargo, Ph.D.

At the Alzheimer’s Association, we launched a bold campaign titled “The First Survivor.” The ad shares our unwavering vision of achieving a goal that is not yet possible – having someone survive Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps you’ve seen it.

The ad describes a future state – but one that can’t come soon enough for the Alzheimer’s Association or the 5.5 million Americans living with the disease and their families.

Today though, Alzheimer’s is fatal. There are no survivors. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only leading cause that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed. Since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased 89 percent; while deaths associated with other major diseases, such as heart disease, HIV/AIDS and cancer have declined. One factor behind this difference – research funding.

Leading scientific experts have said that in order to meet the first goal of the National Alzheimer’s Plan –to effectively treat or cure Alzheimer’s by 2025 – a rapid increase in annual research funding at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is necessary. And, while funding has nearly tripled in five years, we still have not reached the level experts say is needed.

Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease in the country, costing $259 billion – including $175 billion in direct costs to Medicare and Medicaid in 2017. These costs will continue to skyrocket as more and more baby boomers age into the highest category of risk, projected to top $1 trillion by 2050. This enormous burden threatens to bankrupt the country’s Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Ensuring adequate research funding to advance treatments and ultimately a cure is necessary to stop this crisis. Experts say that if treatments became available in 2025 that delayed the onset of Alzheimer’s for five years (a treatment similar to anti-cholesterol drugs), savings would be seen almost immediately, with Medicare and Medicaid spending reduced by $47 billion in 2030. In 2017, the NIH will spend $100 on Alzheimer’s research for every $12,500 Medicare and Medicaid spends caring for people with the disease.

Still, scientific progress is being made, in part because of the increases we’ve already seen.

We have come remarkably far in a relatively short time. Scientists have made enormous strides that have taken us from diagnosing Alzheimer’s only upon autopsy, to detecting its early signs in body fluids, to now seeing the disease’s hallmark plaques and tangles in the living brain — opening up the possibility of treating the disease before symptoms emerge.

Researchers have identified a number of critical risk factors, including genetic risk factors, which help them identify people who could most benefit from early intervention. Building on these and other findings, large-scale clinical trials are now testing drugs that could delay, slow or even prevent the disease’s progression.

Scientific advances in these and other important areas will be the focus next month at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® 2017 (AAIC®). This annual conference unites the world’s leading researchers, next generation investigators, clinicians and the care research community to share discoveries in basic and translational research that will lead to methods of prevention and treatment, and improvements in diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

For the vast majority in attendance, celebrating “The First Survivor” is not a matter of if, but when. This remarkable day will arrive sooner if we make Alzheimer’s a national priority.

Keith Fargo, Ph.D., is Director of Scientific Programs and Outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association.

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