May 16, 2013
Advocacy groups don’t harvest donations -- and don’t draw media attention -- by underplaying the gravity of their missions.
Ideologues, social reformers, and busybodies exaggerate, but so
do commercial interests. (In real life, gray hair doesn’t make a man
undateable.) And governments employ an army of flacks to weave tales of the
tragedies that will transpire if “public services” are cut.
Association is a charity that needn’t resort to hyperbole. The enemy it
faces is horrifying enough, all by itself.
Alzheimer’s disease, the nonprofit grimly summarizes, “destroys
brain cells and causes memory changes, erratic behaviors and loss of body
functions. It slowly and painfully takes away a person’s identity, ability to
connect with others, think, eat, talk, walk and find his or her way home.”
The most common form of dementia afflicts 11 percent of
Americans 65 and older. For those north of 85, the share is 32 percent.
Alzheimer’s disease was an unimpressive killer in the 1970s, but
it now ranks sixth -- behind heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases,
stroke, and accidents -- on the
U.S. cause-of-death list. The malady may climb a notch or two, with better
record-keeping. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that while some victims perish
from unrelated causes, “many of them die … from conditions in which Alzheimer’s
was a contributing cause, such as pneumonia.”
Figures from reliable sources vary, but Alzheimer’s disease
imposes a staggering economic burden. Last month, a RAND Corporation
analysis put 2010’s direct-care cost for dementia at $109 billion. That’s
higher than the bill for heart ailments ($102 billion) and cancer ($77 billion).
And when “the monetary value of informal care is included,” the bill rises to
between $159 and $215 billion.
A great deal of the disorder’s savagery is unquantifiable. The
Alzheimer’s Association reports that 61 percent of family caregivers rated their
emotional stress “as high or very high,” most experienced “a good amount” to “a
great deal” of financial strain, and 43 percent considered the physical toll of
caregiving to be “high to very high.”
The situation is dire, and it’s going to get spectacularly worse.
By midcentury, some believe, the direct costs of Alzheimer’s disease will surpass
$1 trillion. By then, most of the Baby Boomers will be gone. But the relentless
march of medical breakthroughs will doubtless continue. The CDC projects that 2009’s
newborns will live to an average of 78.5 years. It sounds low. A European
study concluded that “most babies born since 2000” in developed countries
can expect to “celebrate their 100th birthdays.”
elites have concocted a solution to the Alzheimer’s Apocalypse: Hurl taxpayer money
at it. Pick a “successful” federal extravaganza -- the Manhattan Project, the
Marshall Plan, Apollo -- and it’s being used to justify massive subsidies to
Maria Shriver and Sandra Day O’Connor, in a December 2010 op-ed
published in The Washington Post,
wrote, “Let us set before the nation the goal of defeating Alzheimer’s within
the next decade.” In May 2012, the White House announced the “National Plan to
Address Alzheimer’s Disease,” a congressionally mandated “roadmap that will
help us meet our goal to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease by
Republics of free men don’t establish “national plans” to
address anything, but the scheme is
understandable, given the illness’s dreadful scope. Unfortunately, it’s not clear
that a politically overseen mustering of national resources will render a solution
For every moonshot, the
feds have bungled dozens of science-and-technology ventures. Miracle cures
aren’t line items in a budget, and they don’t honor deadlines. Alzheimer’s has been
resistant to assaults from medicine’s brightest minds, wealthiest corporations,
and biggest bureaucracies. Much remains unknown about the condition -- including
what causes it -- and billions of dollars have been lost on failed
treatments. The human brain deserves its reputation as the most complex thing
in the universe.
We all have a role to play in answering Alzheimer’s challenge. Private
research institutes need more contributions. Nursing homes need more
volunteers. Family caregivers deserve physical, emotional, and financial
support. Siblings in their 30s and 40s should develop strategies for what to do
about mom and dad. A broad taxpayer awakening will be necessary to cut the cost
of government, spurring the economic growth that will enable near-universal purchases
of long-term-care policies. (Slashing corporate taxes would permit pharmaceutical
manufacturers to spend more on clinical trials.) Activism must include
immigration reform, too -- the
eldercare industry desperately needs millions of new workers.
Alzheimer’s disease is too serious a matter to entrust to the federal
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska. He lives in Broad Brook, Connecticut.
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