Aug 19, 2013

What If We Find a Cure for Alzheimer’s?

Mary sits alone in her darkened bedroom, head drooping, eyes closed.

A noise from another part of the house wakes her. Her head jerks upward. She looks around, then panics, a wild look in her eyes.

She has no idea where she is or even who she is.

What If We Find a Cure for Alzheimer’s?

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By +Marie Marley
+Alzheimer's Reading Room

Her daughter, Beth, comes in, turns on the light and cheerfully says, “Good morning, mom. We’re going to the doctor today to get you a new medicine.

Mary looks up anxiously. She has no earthly idea who this jovial woman is.

She doesn’t respond to Beth’s greeting. She just stares straight ahead, then says angrily,
“Get out of my room. You have no business in here. And I’m not going to any doctor – today or ever".
Then her head drops back down, she stares at the floor and nervously twists a Kleenex in her hands.

Despite Mary’s protests, Beth finally does get her to the doctor that day.

The doctor prescribes a new medicine and within three weeks Mary is cured of Alzheimer’s. Much to the delight of her daughter, Mary lives out the rest of her life with no cognitive disorder.

In its 2013 Facts and Figures report, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

The report also states that by 2525, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease will reach 7.1 million, and that by 2050, that number may nearly triple, from 5 million to a projected 13.8 million.

But what if we find a cure for Alzheimer’s?

This article examines eight direct consequences of exactly that. For purposes of discussion here, “cure” is considered to be in the form of a medication that can completely reverse the symptoms of the disease and stop them from returning.

The Disease’s Cost to US Economy Would End

Again referring to the 2013 Alzheimer’s Association report, in 2013, the direct costs to society of caring for those with Alzheimer’s will total an estimated $203 billion. Further, unless something is done, Alzheimer’s will cost an estimated $1.2 trillion (in today’s dollars) in 2050. All of these funds could be directed toward finding cures for other diseases.
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There Would Be Significant Effects on the Healthcare Workforce

Most of the employees in the healthcare workforce who are currently devoted to caring for those with Alzheimer’s would no longer be needed. This would include physicians, primarily family physicians and neurologists, although a small number of them would still be needed to diagnose and oversee the new treatment of those who develop Alzheimer’s.

At the same time other professionals - in the fields of in-home, assisted living, skilled nursing, and hospice care - would also be out of jobs.

The best approach to finding employment for all of these people would be to retrain them to care for American’s elderly who do not have Alzheimer’s. According to a report by the Institute of Medicine,

“The nation faces an impending health care crisis as the number of older patients with more complex health needs increasingly outpaces the number of health care providers with the knowledge and skills to adequately care for them.”

Putting the former Alzheimer’s disease providers to work caring for the general elderly population would go a long way toward reducing the shortage.

The Sale of Current Medications for Alzheimer’s Would Stop

Some people mistakenly believe that currently approved medications for Alzheimer’s can stop or slow the progression of the disease. But the National Institute of Health states in a Fact Sheet that they only “may help delay or prevent symptoms from becoming worse for a limited time.”

If we find a medication to cure Alzheimer’s, it would replace all of the current ones. Billions of dollars from sales of these medications would stop, although one would assume that sales of the new medicine would more than make up for the losses.

The Pharmaceutical Industry’s Work on Developing New Medications Would End

According to a recent report, Alzheimer’s Research: Setbacks and Stepping Stones, “between 1998 and 2011, no less than 101 treatments have failed to reach patients.”

The pharmaceutical industry’s attempts to develop medications that can cure Alzheimer’s have been both expensive and disappointing. If they do discover such a medication, current research and development efforts would come to a halt. The pharmaceutical company’s scientists working to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s would have to shift their efforts to developing drugs for other diseases.

Research Efforts at Academic Institutions Would Come to a Halt

In addition to researchers at drug companies, hundreds of academic institution researchers are hard at work seeking a cure for Alzheimer’s. If a cure is found, they would all have to switch their academic efforts toward other research endeavors.

Federal Funding for Alzheimer’s Research Would Cease

Current federal funding for Alzheimer’s research is pathetically small. Nonetheless, if we find a cure for the disease all of those funds could be reallocated to research on other serious illnesses.

The Alzheimer’s Association and Other Similar Organizations Would No Longer Needed

The vision of the Alzheimer’s Association is “A world without Alzheimer’s.” I have heard that the Association says it wants to put itself out of business, but I have been unable to find a quote to that effect.

In any event, if we find a cure for Alzheimer’s there would no longer be a need for this organization, its 80 affiliated chapters, and its hundreds of employees, except for some role the organization might play in helping people to get a diagnosis and find treatment for the disease.

This would be so because even if we find a cure we will still need for people to be evaluated and diagnosed so they could begin the new curative medication. All of the other employees would have to find new jobs.

Come Back Early Today
A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy

The Physical, Mental and Financial Effects on Family Caregivers Would End

In the above-referenced report, the Alzheimer’s Association asserts that “In 2012, 15.4 million family and friends provided 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias – care valued at $216.4 billion.”

But what about the effects of caregiving on individual caregivers? All of the following information on that topic all comes from the 2013 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures (full report.)

Effect on Emotional Health: Sixty-one percent of family caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high. More than one-third of caregivers suffer from depression. As the patient nears the end of life 59 percent of caregivers feel they are on duty 24 hours a day, and many feel that caregiving during this time is extremely stressful.

Influence on Physical Health: Overall, the literature remains fairly consistent in suggesting that the chronic stress of caregiving can have potentially negative influences on caregiver health. The physical and emotional impact of caregiving is estimated to have resulted in $91 billion in health care costs in 2012. The health of a person with dementia may also increase the caregiver’s risk of dying.

Impact on Financial Situation: Finally, the effect of the caregiver’s financial situation is significant.

Sixty percent reported having to make major changes in their employment situation. These include, among others, actions such as going in late or leaving early, taking a leave of absence, switching from full-time to part-time employment, giving up work entirely, having performance decrease to the point of potential dismissal, and retiring early.

If we find a cure for Alzheimer’s caregiving all of these effects will disappear. The 5.4 million people with Alzheimer’s will be restored to health and their 15.4 million caregivers will avoid all of the negative consequences listed above.

But most of all the emotional suffering of caregivers would end, and the dreaded diagnosis of Alzheimer’s would be over for good. It would be a joyous day indeed.

Marie Marley is the author of the uplifting, award-winning book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy. To learn more about Marie and to accesss her wealth of information for caregivers go to Come Back Early Today.

Original content Alzheimer's Reading Room.