Ending Alzheimer’s—Supporting The Search For A Cure

Barbara Smith, also known as “B.,” is a well-known restauranteur, author and supermodel who was the first African-American to be featured on the cover of Mademoiselle magazine. In her own words, she now has the “most important job of all,” which is to make a difference in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. In very moving and emotional testimony, Ms. Smith recently described her struggles with the disease before the Senate Aging Committee, which I chair.


Sadly, Ms. Smith has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and is determined to raise public awareness to help others. Right by her side in this fight is her husband Dan Gasby, who says the disease has taken away a person who was at the peak of her abilities. They are determined to make something positive come from their personal struggle with this terrible disease.


Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that takes a tremendous personal and economic toll on the individual, the family, and our nation. Today, more than 5 million Americans, are living with the disease that has no effective means of prevention, treatment, or a cure. Alzheimer’s is now the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.


In addition to the human suffering it causes, Alzheimer’s costs the United States an estimated $226 billion per year, including $153 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid. These costs will only skyrocket as the baby boom generation ages. Unless an effective treatment is developed before 2050, the costs will soar to more than $1.1 trillion, according to new estimates of the Alzheimer’s Association.


Far too many families have experienced the pain of Alzheimer’s disease. As a Senator representing the State with the oldest median age, Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, and Senate Co-Chair of the Congressional Alzheimer’s Task Force, I am convinced that we must accelerate research to find a way to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease. Doing so is among my highest legislative priorities.


That is why I authored a bipartisan amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution that calls for an increase in our federal investment in Alzheimer’s research. I have also been joined by my colleague, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in introducing a resolution declaring that that the goal of preventing and effectively treating Alzheimer’s by 2025 is an “urgent national priority,” as recommended in the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease. The bipartisan resolution calls on the Senate to double the amount of funding the United States spends on Alzheimer’s in fiscal year 2016 and develop a plan to meet the target of $2 billion, as recommended by experts, over the next five years. According to Alzheimer’s Association, if the federal government were to invest this amount, it would recoup its investment within the first three years a treatment or means of prevention becomes available.


It is now estimated that nearly one in two of the baby boomers reaching age 85 will develop Alzheimer’s. As a consequence, chances are that members of the baby boom generation will either be spending their golden years with Alzheimer’s or caring for someone who has it. If we are to prevent Alzheimer’s from becoming the defining disease of the next generation, it is past time that we dramatically increase our investment in Alzheimer’s research.


When the United States is spending more than $200 billion a year to care for Alzheimer’s patients, it is troubling that we are spending less than three-tenths of one percent of that amount B less than $600 million a year B on research. We currently spend $4.5 billion a year for cancer research, $3 billion a year for research on HIV/AIDS, and $2 billion for cardiovascular research-- all investments that have paid great dividends. Surely, we can do more for Alzheimer’s given the tremendous human and economic price of this devastating disease.


Sadly, there are 500,000 deaths each year that are attributed to Alzheimer’s and other dementias. This disease also takes a terrible toll on family caregivers. It is estimated that in Maine, these caregivers provide 77,000 hours of unpaid care to their loved ones. It is essential that a national Alzheimer’s plan includes vigorous support for the families of those with the disease. The endless series of exhausting “36 hour” days inflicts serious emotional and physical hardship on family caregivers. This disease takes a particularly difficult toll on women since almost two-thirds of Americans living with Alzheimer’s are women, and women are also more likely to be the family caregiver.


I called the recent Aging Committee hearing to assess our progress in combating Alzheimer’s. Among our witnesses was Dr. Heidi Wierman, Division Director of Geriatrics at the Maine Medical Center in Portland. Dr. Wierman told the Committee that dementia “is a looming crisis for our state and the nation, with Alzheimer’s being the most common.” She said that diagnosis and treatment of patients with dementia is often not a part of clinical training for most health care providers. It is critical, she said, that our primary care system become better prepared to deal with cognitive assessment and care planning for dementia patients. That, too, must be among our national priorities.


Fortunately, promising research holds hope for Alzheimer’s patients and their families. The research community is poised to make important advances through clinical trials and investigating new therapeutic targets, but adequate funding is critical to advance this research.


As I presided over the recent hearing, I looked onto a standing-room-only hearing room that was filled with hundreds of Alzheimer’s advocates from throughout the nation, including many from Maine, who wore the color purple to show their support for Alzheimer’s research, the patients, and their families. I hope that someday the color purple will be worn by Alzheimer’s survivors.