Imagine an epidemic affecting the brains of 5.2 million Americans, leaving no survivors. What if this disease devastated families financially and emotionally? Think about what would happen if this disease cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Worst of all, imagine there being no known cure, prevention, or completely effective treatment.
People would be screaming for more research, demanding a cure immediately, right? Wrong. Such a disease exists, and its name is Alzheimer’s. While most people know of this affliction, it remains one of the most poorly understood, under funded, costly, and destructive diseases in the world.
The emotional and financial devastation that this disease can cause to families is tragic. I know this because my dear husband recently passed due to Alzheimer’s. There is no other disease that kills quite like this one. It takes more than just a loved one’s memory. It slowly chips away at many of the traits and quirks that make up that person. Meanwhile, caretakers must either pay for someone to be with their loved one full time or quit their own job.
Effects on the Economy
The effects that this disease has on our economy as whole may be less obvious to many people. The fact that Alzheimer’s lingers for so many years and that the patient requires 24/7 monitoring makes it an expensive disease. Currently, Alzheimer’s costs the United States $214 billion each year. Researchers believe that if nothing is done, this cost will rise to $1 trillion each year by 2050.
We know that funding directed toward research can help change all of this, as it has with many other destructive diseases. In fact, in the first decade of the 21st century, the diseases that saw an increase in research funding killed far fewer people than they had previously. There was a 42% decrease in deaths caused by HIV/AIDS, a 23% decrease in strokes, and a 15% decrease in heart disease.
In that same time, there was a 68% increase in deaths caused by Alzheimer’s. Can you guess what happened to Alzheimer’s research funding during that time? It was slashed. While this is correlative evidence, it is striking enough to see that we need more funding to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, and we need it now.
Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s research has a branding problem. In the battle for funding, this can spell serious trouble. Unlike other devastating diseases like cancer and AIDS, there are no famous survivors of the disease. In fact, there are no survivors at all. Of the top 10 fatal diseases, Alzheimer’s is the only one for which there is no treatment. This means the public has nobody to rally around and seems to think there is no hope.
Alzheimer’s also creates a fear so large that many people cannot comprehend taking on this disease. The idea that our memories and essence can be stripped from us is utterly terrifying. Many people are too afraid to even talk about Alzheimer’s, much less discuss funding needs. If we want to help families affected by Alzheimer’s, we must stop whispering about it. We must overcome our fear and speak its name, so that we can demand a cure.
There are also many misconceptions that keep Alzheimer’s research from getting the attention it needs and deserves. One such misconception is that losing one’s memory is a natural part of dying. While age is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, this disease is not a normal, expected part of aging. Perhaps this myth stems from two other common misconceptions about Alzheimer’s: it only happens to old people and it is not fatal.
Up to 5% of people who develop Alzheimer’s will do so in their 40s or 50s. So, we can see that Alzheimer’s does not just affect those who are over 65, as many people believe. Furthermore, people who have this disease, no matter the age, are not just dying from old age and happen to be losing their memory at the same time. Instead, Alzheimer’s is picking away at their brain. This disease is always fatal and is the cause of too many deaths.
Clearing up these misconceptions may play a role in increasing funding for Alzheimer’s research. When people understand that it is a fatal disease that should not be accepted as part of the aging process, they may begin to see why it is so important to fight.
Despite all of the setbacks, much progress has been made in Alzheimer’s research. Scientists have many leads that could cause a breakthrough, if only they had the means to investigate further. For example, people with Down syndrome whose brains look like they should have Alzheimer’s do not experience symptoms of the disease. Researchers may be able to understand why this happens, which would lead us closer to a cure.
Similarly, patients with rheumatoid arthritis do not experience Alzheimer’s at the same rate as the general population. While the reason behind this is unknown, studying it could lead to a better understanding of both diseases. There are many other avenues of study that researchers could take as well.
Yes, there is an epidemic sweeping the nation, affecting millions of brains and costing billions of dollars. What’s more important is that there is hope. If we clear up a few misconceptions, fund the proper research, and never give up, we can beat this disease.