Sharon Durnin is all too familiar with a report saying that the number of people living with Alzheimer’s is expected to triple in the next 40 years. The report, published last month in an online issue of Neurology, focuses on the aging baby boomer generation.
But Durnin, administrator at Preston Place II, a secured assisted living facility in Kingsport that offers care for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, knows that the disease doesn’t discriminate.
“What we know about it now is that in a lot of people [the disease presents itself] younger and younger. These were working people. Bankers, folks working with the public. Their minds were very busy,” she said. “It affects everyone and anyone. It is the sixth leading cause of death, and I think its the only one that does not have a cure, a prevention.”
In the Neurology report, researchers predict that 13.8 million people will have the mind-robbing disease by 2050; about 7 million of those would be age 85 or older. Currently, an estimated 4.7 million Americans have Alzheimer's, the most common cause of dementia.
“This increase is due to an aging baby boom generation. It will place a huge burden on society, disabling more people who develop the disease, challenging their caregivers, and straining medical and social safety nets,” said co-author Jennifer Weuve, an assistant professor of medicine at Rush Institute for Healthy Aging at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “Our study draws attention to an urgent need for more research, treatments and preventive strategies to reduce this epidemic.”
Those numbers are frightening to Durnin, who oversees the 33-bed Preston Place II.
“It really frightens me more for my children. ... What people don’t realize is we don’t know how many people, even in our community, are living with this every day and they just don’t know it yet,” she said.
Like Durnin, Heather Gwinn, manager of programs and education at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Johnson City Chapter, wasn’t surprised at the data.
“The baby boomer population is what we’re looking at right now. Because of the baby boomers, we’ve got this large population of people within the age range of those susceptible to get Alzheimer’s,” she said. “We look at age as the number one risk factor ... 65 and older.”
These projections emphasize the need to find either prevention or treatment for Alzheimer’s disease dementia in order to decrease the burden of future disease on individuals, families and the medical care system. Even before the Neurology study was released, the Obama administration announced efforts to fight Alzheimer’s disease, including making an additional $50 million available for cutting-edge Alzheimer’s research. In addition, the administration announced that its fiscal year 2013 budget would boost funding for Alzheimer’s research by $80 million.
So far, though, there’s no cure for the disease. The five FDA-approved drugs to treat Alzheimer’s have been found to relieve symptoms for a few months, but none stop it, leaving millions of American families struggling with the physical, emotional and financial costs of caring for a loved one.
“That’s one of the issues,” Durnin said. “The financial burden of that is huge. Even the medications that people take, some are astronomical. People can’t afford these medications sometimes.”
An even greater expense is the cost of round-the-clock care for someone with Alzheimer’s.
“The facilities may be there, but even if the facilities are there, people are not going to be able to afford it. ... We’re going to be looking at bankrupting the system of Medicare, so there will be no money for people to afford the care, even if it’s offered,” Gwinn said. “We really have to get everybody on board understanding the importance of continuing to look for the symptoms, recognizing those things, continuing to look for treatments and a cure in the end.”
Now that we have earlier onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia, Durnin said, people outlive their money.
“People don’t save today. It is an astronomical cost and I see no end for it,” she said. “There are researchers, trials and studies. Somebody, somewhere, they’re going to get it. Hopefully.”