By Steven Reinberg
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; 12:00 AM
TUESDAY, March 18 (HealthDay News) -- An estimated 10 million American baby boomers will develop Alzheimer's disease in their lifetime, placing enormous strains on the U.S. health-care system and the already overburdened network of caregivers, a new report predicts.
Currently, at least 5.2 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's, including 200,000 to 250,000 people under age 65. By 2010, projections say there will be 500,000 new cases of the mind-wasting disease each year, and nearly one million new cases annually by 2050, the report estimates.
In addition, the report, released Tuesday by the Alzheimer's Association, showed that the disease is now the seventh deadliest in the nation and that women are at greater risk than men.
The overall prediction for 10 million, which translates to 1 out of every 8 boomers, is a number that is "particularly significant because it's people who are now just approaching what we refer to as the age of highest risk," said Stephen McConnell, the association's vice president for advocacy and public policy.
The age of highest risk for Alzheimer's starts at 65, McConnell said. "Some of these people are already developing the disease, and those numbers are just going to increase dramatically over the next several decades," he added.
This is going to have a huge impact on baby boomers' lives, their families, and the nation's health-care system, McConnell said.
Right now, there are 10 million caregivers providing care, many of them family members, at enormous personal cost, McConnell noted. "These caregivers tend to be spouses, but there's evidence that 250,000 of these caregivers are children 8 to 18," he said. "So you get the sense of an expanded circle of people who are affected by this disease. It's not just the person with the disease. It's not just their immediate caregiver -- it's the children and grandchildren."
Most people with Alzheimer's are eligible for Medicare, so a burgeoning number of Alzheimer's patients will put a major strain on the federal health insurance program, McConnell pointed out.
Medicare currently spends more than three times as much money on people with Alzheimer's and other dementias than it does for the average Medicare recipient. In 2005, Medicare spent $91 billion on people with Alzheimer's and other dementias. By 2010, that number is expected to climb to $160 billion, and by 2015, to $189 billion annually, according to the report.
These high Medicare costs occur because Alzheimer's tends to complicate the treatment of other medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, McConnell said. Also, while people with Alzheimer's live an average of eight years, they can live more than 20 years, placing an additional strain on the health-care system.
The projected rise in Alzheimer's cases will also burden the long-term care system, McConnell said. "Right now, it's mostly families providing care at home, but most people with Alzheimer's disease end up in a nursing home or an assisted living facility," he said. "In fact, three-quarters of people with Alzheimer's will die in such a facility."
Complicating matters, long-term care isn't covered by most regular health insurance, and most people don't have long-term care insurance, McConnell said. "That's going to have a devastating impact on society," he said.
Still, McConnell said there's hope for new treatments for Alzheimer's, but it's going to take a lot more money for research and testing to make those hopes a reality.
There seems to be a connection between Alzheimer's and cardiovascular disease, McConnell said. Diet, exercise and blood-pressure control may help stave off cognitive decline and Alzheimer's, he said.
Also, new drugs being tested "show promise in altering the course of the disease," McConnell said.
"Eventually, this disease could be preventable. It's certainly a disease we hope will be manageable if we catch it early," McConnell said. "If we are just able to slow the progression of the disease and delay its onset, it could save many millions of people from having to deal with the consequences of the disease. And it could save billions of dollars in the health-care system."
But, the U.S. government has cut spending on Alzheimer's research, McConnell added. "Right now the government is spending about $640 million a year on Alzheimer's research," he said. "It seems like a lot, but we are spending over $5 billion a year on cancer, and more than $3 billion on heart disease each year. If we can just get that $640 million up to $1 billion a year, that would make a big difference."
Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, worries that there won't be enough trained medical professionals to deal with the projected rise in Alzheimer's patients.
"We are not training enough generalists or specialists in geriatrics, whether it's medicine, psychiatry, family medicine, nursing or social work in the numbers we need to deal with people with dementia," he said.
However, Kennedy also thinks the projected number of Alzheimer's patients contained in the new report may be too high. Baby boomers are healthier, more active, better educated and wealthier than their parents, he noted, and this may help delay the development of the disease until the end of their natural lifespan.
Also, new medications may make Alzheimer's manageable by slowing its progression, Kennedy said.
"Probably within the next five years we're going to have medications that alter the course of the illness," he said. "When that happens, you're going to see pushing back of the disability of the illness even further. So we don't have to cure Alzheimer's disease, we just have to find interventions that are going to delay the disability."
For more on Alzheimer's, visit the Alzheimer's Association.
SOURCES: Stephen McConnell, vice president for advocacy and public policy, Alzheimer's Association, New York City; Gary Kennedy, M.D., director, geriatric psychiatry, Montefiore Medical Center, New York City; March 18, 2008, report:2008 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures