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Commentary

Let's Pay Up for Alzheimer's
Newt Gingrich, Robert Egge, Business Week, 12-11-06

Gingrich makes the case that the U.S. should sharply increase funding into the research and treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's disease is devastating. It strikes 1 in 10 Americans over age 65 and almost half of Americans over 85—the odds of developing Alzheimer's double every five years after 65. There are, so far, no cures, no remissions. While it is increasingly common to meet heart attack or cancer survivors, you won't meet an Alzheimer's survivor because there are none. Alzheimer's always ends in death. Perhaps that's why older Americans fear it more than cancer, heart disease, or any other malady.

Alzheimer's is also tragically predictable on a national level. More than 4 million Americans currently suffer from the brain-crippling disease. With the aging of U.S. baby boomers, this number is set to triple in little more than a generation. And because Alzheimer's robs capabilities and independence, it's also very expensive. This year the federal government will spend more than $120 billion to support those struggling with it. (But, of course, not even the most compassionate and skilled caregiver is able to replace what Alzheimer's takes away.)

This government's $120 billion is only a foretaste of what awaits the nation. Without medical breakthroughs, as the boomers pass through their elder years, federal spending on Alzheimer's care will increase to more than $1 trillion per year by 2050 in today's dollars. That's more than 10% of our America's current gross domestic product. With this amount of money on the table, the government simply will not be able to solve its looming fiscal problems if it fails to address the growing Alzheimer's epidemic.

Indeed, the value of a medical breakthrough for Alzheimer's would be overwhelming; for instance, according to the Lewin Group, a research advance that delayed the onset of Alzheimer's by just five years would translate by 2050 into a 5.3 million (40%) reduction in disease prevalence and roughly $515 billion (44%) in annual savings for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

But that prognosis is unlikely given our present course. Just compare how much Washington currently is spending to defeat this disease, primarily through the National Institutes of Health and Food & Drug Administration, with the amount it now spends—through Medicare and Medicaid—to cope with the ruin Alzheimer's leaves behind: For every dollar the government spends to treat the impact of Alzheimer's, it devotes less than a penny toward finding a cure.

This penny-on-the-dollar approach might be called the Katrina Strategy for Alzheimer's. Policymakers long neglected the work of strengthening the levees that might have saved New Orleans from the worst of Katrina's impact, only to later spend more than a hundredfold the cost of fixing the levees to rebuild the broken city after the levees failed. This is exactly what we're doing with Alzheimer's.



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