The United States and, undoubtedly, other developed nations, too, are facing a crisis that is cruelly inevitable, unaffordable and, further, not one we can do much about -- at least yet.
The crisis is dementia and its most common form, Alzheimer's disease. The most extensive and rigorous study of the costs of dementia finds that it is America's most expensive disease, $109 billion a year in direct medical costs. This makes it more expensive than the $102 billion we spend on heart disease and the $77 billion on cancer.
Many forms of cancer and heart disease can be treated and even cured. Although the pace of research into experimental drugs has stepped up, there is no treatment yet to slow the course of the disease, let alone reverse or cure it.
The medical costs alone understate the true cost of dementia, according to the report by the Rand Center for the Study of Aging. Considering such factors as the lost wages of family caregivers, the true cost is between $157 billion and $215 billion a year. One caregiver, who had to drop out of school to look after her impaired parents, said that "the financial impact of dementia is wiping out families." Each case of dementia costs $41,000 to $56,000 a year, the study said, adding that the cost and the number of people with the disease will double within 30 years. "It's going to swamp the system," said Dr. Ronald Peterson, chairman of an advisory panel to the federal government.
Dr. Michael Hurd, the lead author of the study, said 22 percent of Americans 71 and older -- about 5.4 million -- have mild cognitive impairment and 12 percent of those will go on to develop dementia each year. The Alzheimer's Association estimates that 5 million Americans 65 and older suffer from Alzheimer's.
These numbers and their almost frightening rate of growth make it a national priority to find ways to prevent and treat the disease, and care for those who suffer from it.
Dale McFeatters is a nationally syndicated columnist.