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A Bold Approach to Fighting Alzheimer’s

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, first declared by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.  Just 11 years later, President Reagan himself was diagnosed with the terrible disease that eventually claimed his life, as it has claimed the lives of so many others.


This month is dedicated to those who have been stricken with Alzheimer’s, their family members and other devoted caregivers, and to the medical professionals and researchers who are working to advance our understanding of the disease, find an effective treatment, and, ultimately, discover a cure and a means of prevention.


Alzheimer’s disease is one of the greatest under-recognized public health threats of our time.  Five and a half million Americans are living with the disease, including 27,000 here in Maine, and that number is soaring as our overall population grows older and lives longer. 


In addition to the human suffering it causes, Alzheimer’s is our nation’s costliest disease.  The United States spends more than $259 billion per year, including $175 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid.  By 2050, if we continue along this trajectory, costs are projected to increase to more than $1.1 trillion, and the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s is expected to reach 16 million.  While Alzheimer’s is the only one of our nation’s most deadly diseases without an effective treatment or cure, new research is showing that there are actions we can take to promote prevention and improve treatment. 


The first step we should take is to recognize Alzheimer’s as a public health crisis.  I have introduced bipartisan legislation, the Building Our Largest Dementia (BOLD) Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act, to create a public health infrastructure to combat Alzheimer’s disease and preserve brain health through early detection and diagnosis as well as improved treatment and care.


It is because of public health advancements that we have safe water to drink, vaccines to prevent deadly diseases, and emergency preparedness tools to save lives.  Using a public health approach, there is potential to change the trajectory of Alzheimer’s.


The effort to overcome Alzheimer’s disease through a unified national effort is gaining traction.  In 1999, when I founded the Bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s, there was virtually no focus in Washington on this disease.  In fact, people were afraid to say the word “Alzheimer’s,” just as – years ago – people didn’t talk about cancer.  Seven years ago, I co-authored the bipartisan National Alzheimer’s Project Act, which set the primary goal of preventing and effectively treating the disease by 2025.  That legislation created an expert council, which has calculated that $2 billion per year is needed to achieve that goal.


On the Appropriations Committee, I worked to turn the words of that recommendation into action.  The proposed funding bill for the upcoming fiscal year provides a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health that includes a $414 million increase for Alzheimer’s research, the largest in history.  That brings the total for Alzheimer’s research to $1.8 billion – well within reach of our $2 billion goal. 


While research is moving forward, we must also put in practice what we know about prevention, and enhance the quality of care and support for those living with Alzheimer’s and their families.    Alzheimer’s exacts a tremendous personal and economic toll on families and communities. 


The BOLD Act, which I have introduced, would establish Centers of Excellence in Public Health Practice to promote better treatment and care for those living with Alzheimer’s.  The Centers would also educate the public on Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline, and brain health. 


My legislation would also help communities across America to combat Alzheimer’s.  The legislation would direct the CDC to establish and distribute awards of funding to local public health departments to support Americans living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.  The awards of funding would also be used to educate Americans about ways to reduce the risk of memory loss, and other symptoms that can happen before Alzheimer’s strikes. 


Finally, at the heart of public health is data.  This legislation would direct CDC to collect data to help us better understand the trends in cognitive decline, cognitive impairment, and caregiving.  The data would be shared with the public and used to improve brain health.


For far too long we have viewed Alzheimer’s as an aging issue that plagues some seniors today and threatens to affect many more tomorrow.  New research finds that, in fact, Alzheimer’s is a public health issue with a course that we can change. 


The BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act would create a new enlightened public policy out of promising research.  It would dramatically change the way we think of the disease, and ultimately, it has the potential to save millions of lives.