Alzheimer's and the Media... Follow the Money

The media should "follow the money" and shine light on why Alzheimer's research, along with assistance to those who already have Alzheimer's and their caregivers, is not receiving significantly more federal funding.
08/17/2015 05:38pm ET | Updated August 17, 2016
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Brain disease with memory loss due to Dementia and Alzheimer's illness with the medical icon of an autumn season color tree in the shape of a human head and brain losing leaves as a concept of intelligence decline.

In 2010, Congress passed legislation to create the National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA), leading to a "National Plan to Address Alzheimer's Disease."

As reported in The New York Times, NAPA's goal was to establish a national plan to "accelerate the development of treatments that would prevent, halt or reverse the course of Alzheimer's" and "improve the early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and coordination of the care and treatment of citizens with Alzheimer's." The Times article referred to NAPA as "a national plan to combat Alzheimer's disease with the same intensity as the attacks on AIDS and cancer."

However, unlike our national plans to combat AIDS and cancer, our federal government has never funded Alzheimer's research anywhere near the levels it has funded cancer and AIDS research. In each of the last 5 years, our National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave $5.2-5.6 billion for cancer research and $2.9-3.1 billion for HIV/AIDS research, but only $448- $586 million for Alzheimer's research.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), by 2013 the HIV/AIDS mortality rate in the U.S. per 100,000 people, which had been 16.8 in 1995, had fallen to 2.2, resulting in 6,995 deaths. That compares to a cancer mortality rate of 185.0 resulting in 584,881 deaths, ranking cancer as the 2nd leading cause of death in our country. The Alzheimer's mortality rate was 26.8, resulting in 84,767 deaths, ranking Alzheimer's as the 6th leading cause of death in our country.

According to the NIH's National Institute on Aging, however, recent studies show that the real number of Alzheimer's deaths each year may be more than 500,000, placing Alzheimer's right behind cancer as the 3rd leading cause of death, because"underreporting of Alzheimer's as a cause of death on death certificates is a well-known phenomenon." Pneumonia, for example, may be listed as the cause of death on death certificates when Alzheimer's is the underlying cause of that pneumonia.

In April, 2013, Harry Johns, president of the Alzheimer's Association and a member of the NAPA Advisory Council, said: "The Alzheimer's epidemic is gaining momentum. And with Alzheimer's recently identified as the nation's most expensive disease, it is now clear to everyone that we can no longer afford to ignore it." 9 But, amazingly, our government still continues to ignore it.

President Obama's fiscal year 2016 federal budget proposes spending an additional $25.3 billion for domestic funding of HIV/AIDS programs for care and treatment, housing, prevention, research, etc. In contrast, the president's 2016 budget proposes spending only an additional $51 million for Alzheimer's research and programs.

Why isn't the media reporting that only an additional $51 million is requested for Alzheimer's, the only disease among the top 10 causes of death that is not preventable or treatable, has no cure, and is the costliest disease for the federal government, but an additional $25.3 billion is requested for HIV/AIDS, a disease that is preventable and treatable and is not even among the top 10 causes of death in this country?

Annual Medicare costs for the 5.2 million Americans already diagnosed with Alzheimer's already exceed $100 billion and if there are no medical breakthroughs as the baby boom generation ages, annual Medicare costs for Alzheimer's are expected to reach $589 billion by 2050. Where is the media coverage on the explosion in coasts to Medicare if we don't succeed in finding effective treatments for Alzheimer's?

Last year, NIH was directed by Congress to prepare a special "professional judgment budget" for additional Alzheimer's funding. Congress has only requested a special budget from NIH for two other diseases in the past ... cancer and AIDS. Perhaps this is an indication that Congress realizes that with current appropriations for research we will not meet NAPA's goal of effectively treating and preventing Alzheimer's disease by 2025. Last month, NIH presented this budget, requesting an additional $323 million for Alzheimer's research for fiscal year 2017. Even if this additional money is approved, however, funding from NIH would still be less than $1 billion in 2017, compared to HIV/AIDS funding at $3 billion and cancer funding at $5+ billion. Why is our "War on Alzheimer's" so seriously underfunded when compared to our wars on AIDS and cancer?

Finding the billions of dollars of federal funding needed for Alzheimer's research when our nation is mired in trillions of dollars of debt will not be easy. But as U. S. Senator Susan Collins (R -Maine), a co-sponsor of the legislation that created NAPA, said this July, "If you look at the tsunami of (Alzheimer's) cases we are going to be facing, we can't afford not to make this investment."

The media should "follow the money" and shine light on why Alzheimer's research, along with assistance to those who already have Alzheimer's and their caregivers, is not receiving significantly more federal funding.

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My next blog post will be in two weeks. Tentative title ... "Alzheimer's and the NFL"