Rising Numbers Of Alzheimer's Patients Could Bankrupt Medicare

Baby boomers are heading inexorably into the peak risk years for the disease.

Alzheimer’s has been called the “most feared disease in America.” More than 5 million people currently live with the neurodegenerative disease, and its death toll has nearly doubled in the past 15 years.

It’s also one of the costliest health conditions in America.

This year, for the first time, total costs related to caring for patients with Alzheimer’s will surpass a quarter of a trillion dollars, according to the Alzheimer’s Association annual report, released Wednesday.

With roughly 75 million boomers only beginning to reach the age of greatest risk for the disease, the U.S. may be disturbingly close to the tipping point for runaway Alzheimer’s-related health care costs. The 88-page report lays out some sobering statistics, including the possible bankruptcy of Medicare.

The number of Americans with Alzheimer's is expected to double by 2050.
oneinchpunch via Getty Images
The number of Americans with Alzheimer's is expected to double by 2050.

A Costly Epidemic

By 2050, as the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s doubles, the cost is expected to rise to $1.1 trillion. But we’re likely to see staggering impacts on the health care system long before then.

Total costs in the last five years of life for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia amount to roughly $341,000 ― that’s 57 percent higher than the costs for those without the disease.

Twenty-seven percent of seniors with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia have both Medicare and Medicaid coverage. According to the new report, average annual Medicaid payments per person for those Medicare beneficiaries with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia are a whopping 23 times greater than those for Medicare beneficiaries without dementia. Medicare beneficiaries with dementia also face out-of-pocket costs that can run to tens of thousands of dollars annually.

Medicare and Medicaid, which provide health care insurance for elderly, disabled and low-income Americans, cover roughly two-thirds of total Alzheimer’s-related health care costs in the U.S. That amounts to 1 in 5 Medicare-Medicaid dollars being funneled toward those costs. As increasing numbers of boomers develop Alzheimer’s, that number could jump to 1 in 3.

At that point, Medicare and Medicaid will “single-handedly collapse” under the pressure, Harvard neurologist Dr. Rudy Tanzi told CNN.

That doesn’t even take into account proposals from Republican leadership, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan, to privatize ― aka cut back ― Medicare. The GOP’s new health care plan, unveiled Monday, would repeal the Affordable Care Act’s taxes on high-income households and the health care industry whose revenue is funneled toward Medicare. According to the Brookings Institute, such tax cuts would exhaust the Medicare trust fund in just seven years.

Any loss of government support would only add to family members’ burden of caring for loved ones with dementia, which amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars each year in unpaid labor.

The Urgent Need For Research

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. In fact, Alzheimer’s is the only one of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. that cannot be prevented, slowed or cured.

The Alzheimer’s Association report highlights the urgent need for increased funding and a major global research effort aimed at the prevention and treatment of the debilitating disease.

For now, money for Alzheimer’s research lags behind that of other diseases. While the U.S. government committed over $5 billion to cancer research and $3 billion to HIV/AIDS research in 2015, funding for Alzheimer’s research came in at less than $600 million that year, according to AARP.

Simply put, Alzheimer’s is a public health crisis. Yet due to the social stigma surrounding dementia, its full dimensions are still cloaked in shadow. Combating the disease is going to require that politicians and members of the public speak out and demand real solutions.

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