First, the good news.
Well ... there isn’t any good news about Alzheimer’s disease.
“There is no cure,” says Ann Hathaway, northern Indiana director for the Greater Indiana Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “There’s no way to slow the progression of the disease.
“And there’s no prevention. The disease will progress as it progresses.”
There is hope, though, and there are ways for victims and their families to make the most of an otherwise grim situation. But first, let’s look this escalating cause of private affliction and public crisis in the eye.
A new report from the Alzheimer’s Association provides proof of what all of us already fear: This dread disease is becoming epidemic.
Five million Americans have Alzheimer’s today, and 16 million will have it by 2016. Death rates for many of our killer diseases are plummeting – breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, HIV, stroke. But the death rate for Alzheimer’s has risen, to half a million people a year.
Alzheimer’s destroys lives indiscriminately, but it is somewhat selective in its victims. Blacks are twice as likely and Hispanics are 1½ times as likely to be stricken as Caucasians. Overall, one in nine of us will develop Alzheimer’s during our lifetime, and women (one in six) are more likely targets than men (one in 11).
Women also play a disproportionate role in caring for those who suffer from the disease. They are far more likely to have to take a leave of absence, go to part-time work or stop working altogether to care for someone. The gender disparity is so great that the Alzheimer’s Association is targeting a new campaign to inform women of their risks and options.
And though Alzheimer’s is thought of as a disease of the aged, there now are more than 200,000 Americans younger than 65 with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. “We’re definitely seeing more cases,” Hathaway says – sufferers in their 50s or even late 40s. The difficulties the disease presents are magnified when the victim is the family breadwinner or the parent of young children.
Even if you are fortunate enough not to have had family or friends touched by this disease, consider the cost of caring for its victims. The annual bill to the nation is $214 billion today, projected to rise to $1.2 trillion by 2050.
But in the darkness of the Alzheimer’s epidemic, there is hope. “Just because you have a diagnosis doesn’t mean that it’s the end of your life,” Hathaway says. Those with Alzheimer’s can learn how best to cope; they can plan to make the most of the time that’s left to them; they can make arrangements for their family’s future. The local Alzheimer’s office offers counseling, support groups and education programs, all free of charge.
There is research that might lead to a prevention strategy or a cure. Other diseases that once meant a death sentence have been controlled or even eradicated.
National funding for research still lags behind other find-a-cure causes, but as the number of sufferers rises, the argument for increased public financial support grows stronger. “We’re increasing,” Hathaway says, “while some of the other diseases are decreasing.”
Most of all, Hathaway emphasizes how supportive Indiana community leaders have been – for Alzheimer’s walks, for legislation that requires Alzheimer’s-sensitivity training for first responders.
Soon, it will dawn on everyone: This is a disease we have to beat.