By Ryan Flinn
SAN FRANCISCO —
The cost of caring for dementia patients has reached $109 billion annually, exceeding that for heart disease and cancer, and will double by the time the youngest Baby Boomers reach their 70's, according to a study.
Dementia, most commonly taking the form of Alzheimer's, results in a loss of brain function affecting memory, thinking, language, judgment and behavior. More than 5 million Americans have the Alzheimer's, according to the Alzheimer's Association, and that number will rise 40 percent by 2025. Dementia represents a substantial financial burden on society, researchers said in the study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The need for treatments for Alzheimer's and other brain disorders is now urgent, researchers said. To speed along research, President Barack Obama announced earlier this week a campaign called the BRAIN Initiative, which will spend $100 million beginning in 2014 to map the complex interactions between brain cells and neurological circuits.
"We need more research into interventions to delay or halt the onset of dementia, right now we don't really have anything at all," said Michael Hurd, an author of the study and director of Rand Corp.'s Center of the Study of Aging, in an interview. "The problem is going to grow rapidly."
When support from family and friends is given a cost value, the yearly expense of dementia care and treatment doubled to $215 billion in 2010, the study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, said. That figure will jump to $511 billion by 2040, as the generation born between 1946 and 1964 range become elderly, according to the study.
By comparison, the direct cost of treating heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, was $102 billion in 2010, while cancer cost $77 billion, according to the paper.
The study, conducted by researchers from Rand Corp. and the University of Michigan, estimates 15 percent of people older than 70 have dementia, based on their interviews with 856 out of almost 11,000 participants in the U.S. Health and Retirement Study. They also collected self-reported out-of- pocket costs, nursing home spending, Medicare claims data and estimates of hours spent by unpaid volunteers. The annual cost per person was estimated to be $56,290.
The NIH report is a prominent effort from a non-advocacy group to determine the financial toll of dementia. The Alzheimer's Association has estimated higher prevalence and a cost of $172 billion in 2010, based on different methodologies.
Little is known about the causes of many brain disorders, including Alzheimer's, a disease expected to affect 65.7 million people by 2030. There have been 101 unsuccessful attempts to develop a treatment for Alzheimer's disease since 1998, including recent setbacks by Pfizer Inc., Johnson & Johnson and Eli Lilly & Co., according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
In January 2011, Obama signed the National Alzheimer's Project Act into law. Its goal is to improve the ability of the federal government to track costs to Medicare, Medicaid and individuals that result from dementia.
The study "heightens the awareness of the particular problem of Alzheimer's disease that somehow as a nation we're going to have to accommodate for," said Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute of Aging in Bethesda, Md., the arm of NIH that directs Alzheimer's research, in an interview. "Not just the cost for professionals, but the enormously important hours spent by volunteers out of love, becomes more and more of a challenge when we have fewer and fewer people able to take on that role."