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Chester County Press

It's important to fund Alzheimer's research

10/08/2014 01:49AM ● By Lev

Letter to the Editor:

I live with about 800 elderly people in a continuing-care residence. We find ourselves in various stages of senility (normal to demented), but are fortunate to have sensitive care and medical oversight. We are aware that many others our age are not so lucky. Among other hazards of old age, they can drift into dementias like Alzheimer’s disease before they know it, and indeed without anyone knowing.

Their situation will improve, however, with the annual cognitive checkup provided by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

About 5 million victims of that disease are diagnosed annually, mostly under Medicare, but most go undiagnosed. From a Harvard research group's study reported in 1989, we can say that the probability of a person over the age of 84 having Alzheimer's disease is about 47 percent -- that's with clear symptoms -- a proportion much larger than for any other senile dementia.

Although the extended home services of ACA, its coordination of care and its Alzheimer’s early-onset insurance does address many of the very serious problems presented by the widespread disease, actual medical intervention is limited by lack of knowledge of its etiology (cause). Only in its advanced stages can it be diagnosed. Medical research is providing more and more light on the early stages.

For example, many young Down's syndrome patients eventually present the authentic disease, now that they live long enough, affording a study path to early diagnosis. Generally, a research program is supportable under three conditions that studies on Alzheimer's fulfill: The health problem is severe; the program is likely to succeed in its mission; and many Americans will benefit.

The nation is addressing the senility problem on administrative and scientific levels, as described above. There are obstacles, however, on the political level. Senators and congressmen might favor the health interests of the elderly, but they have other constituencies, too. The foremost agency for research on Alzheimer's disease is the National Institute for Aging, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In spite of the well-known "sequestration" of federal funds, their budget for Alzheimer's disease research was increased by $130 million this year. The Senate voted overwhelmingly for it when it imposed cloture against filibustering, but Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey voted with his party in opposing it. Again, these senators would probably agree on the importance of growing senility as an issue, but they have issues that apparently are more important to them.

The cost to the nation of Alzheimer's disease is estimated at $214 billion in 2014, $113 billion charged to Medicare; compare that with the total budget of the Institute of Aging, $566 million and its Congressional earmark for Alzheimer's disease, $130 million. One can believe, as Sen. Toomey says he does, that Alzheimer's is an important disease that the National Institutes of Health should give a higher priority to, at the expense of reduced attention to other important health threats such as diabetes or epilepsy. But Alzheimer's is a newly growing threat to all of us, simply because we live longer. It cannot be adequately dealt with within the budgets of yesteryear offered by Sen. Toomey.

Obviously, someone doesn't have his issues in perspective. Sen. Toomey and others who opposed the funding didn't succeed in blocking the budget, but perhaps we need a Congress that is more committed to solving problems that count for all of us. There will be an election in 2016, and the presumed Democratic candidate for Senate will be Admiral Joe Sestak, a former U.S. congressman. His concern with the threat of Alzheimer’s disease to all of us has been made clear from his sponsorship, when he was a congressman, of the Alzheimer’s Treatment and Caregiver Support Act, which provides grants to improve treatment services and care for the five million Americans afflicted with the disease.

The limitations of scientific knowledge about Alzheimer’s disease and of care for its victims lie in the will of the politicians. It's time we give them a wakeup call.

Paul Kronick

Kennett Square