The number of people with Alzheimer's disease will nearly triple by 2050 unless a cure is found, say researchers who based their prediction on U.S. Census Bureau data.

"There is a tsunami of cases coming, and for those of us who are older, we have to wonder whether we are part of it," said Dallas Anderson, 64, an epidemiologist at the National Institute on Aging, which funded the research.

Published Wednesday in the online edition of the journal Neurology, the dire prediction of nearly 14 million Americans burdened by Alzheimer's in fewer than four decades is part of a more complex research project conducted by scientists at Rush University in Chicago.

Anderson said the increasing number of dementia patients will be a consequence of greater longevity among baby boomers.

The same Rush team made a similar prediction a decade ago, basing its findings on statistics culled from the 2000 U.S. Census and population prediction models.

After another decade of research, Anderson said, the team uncovered a still-worrisome outlook when it comes to Alzheimer's, the leading form of dementia.

"Our study draws attention to an urgent need for more research, treatments and preventive strategies to reduce this epidemic," said Jennifer Weuve, a Rush University co-author.

"It will place a huge burden on society, disabling more people who develop the disease, challenging their caregivers, and straining medical and social safety nets," Weuve said.

Mary Ann Malack-Ragona, executive director of the Alzheimer's Disease Resource Center in Bay Shore, said signs of an Alzheimer's surge seem to have already begun on Long Island.

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An increasing number of families today are seeking help through support groups compared with a decade ago, she said. But the need for help comes amid state cutbacks that have eliminated funding for many adult day-care centers statewide.

"This is a very serious issue, probably one of the most serious issues facing us as a society," Malack-Ragona said.

Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disease that robs people of a sense of time, place, self and all surroundings, leaving only a shell of the person behind.

Malack-Ragona estimates it now costs between $75,000 and $80,000 annually to care for someone at home with Alzheimer's, and that most families on Long Island care for affected relatives themselves.

"It's much less than a nursing home," she added, estimating the cost of institutionalized care as between $13,000 and $15,000 per month.

George Vradenburg, chairman of the national advocacy organization USAgainstAlzheimer's, said he sees encouraging signs down the road.

"There are drugs in development that have shown modest, positive impact in modifying early-stage disease," he said.

He also tried to rein in the fear attached to predictions of ever-rising numbers of afflicted people.

"There was a time in the early 1950s when it was predicted that it would cost $100 billion a year to treat polio patients by the year 2000," Vradenburg said.

"They predicted a massive leg-brace and iron-lung manufacturing industry and polio-only hospitals filled to capacity with patients," Vradenburg said.

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But technology changed, vaccines arrived, he said, and those dire predictions never came to be.

He said he hopes a similar assault on Alzheimer's will follow the polio model.