Over 100 million Americans ― close to a third of the total population ― suffer from neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, migraines, epilepsy and spinal cord injury.
These conditions put an enormous financial strain on the health care system, totaling nearly $800 billion in annual costs, according to a new report published in the journal Annals of Neurology. To put that into perspective, the figure exceeds the U.S. military budget by over $100 billion.
That number reflects the total cost of the nine most common neurological diseases, but the total costs related to the more than 1,000 known diseases of the nervous system would be much higher, the researchers noted.
Neurological disorders disproportionately affect older adults. The costs are expected to increase exponentially in the coming years, as the elderly population will double by 2050.
“The extraordinary rise in the total cost for neurological disease is first due to the dramatic increase in the number of people in the U.S. over the age of 65, who are especially susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” Dr. Clifton Gooch, a neurologist at the University of South Florida and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post.
“The gift of older age for most of Americans now brings the risk of debilitating neurological diseases for which no adequate treatment exists."”
“Ironically,” he added, “the gift of older age for most of Americans now brings the risk of debilitating neurological diseases for which no adequate treatment exists, and the cost of that care will shortly rise to levels high enough to destabilize the health care system and damage the economy.”
These alarming numbers call attention to the urgent need for greater funding for neurological research and care. Unfortunately, research funding and progress for neurological ailments lags woefully behind other common ailments like heart disease and cancer.
“The findings of this report are a wake-up call for the nation, as we are facing an already incredible financial burden that is going to rapidly worsen in the coming years,” Gooch said in a statement. “Although society continues to reap the benefits of the dramatic research investments in heart disease and cancer over the last few decades, similar levels of investment are required to fund neuroscience research focused on curing devastating neurological diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer’s.”
Alzheimer’s is by far the costliest of all these conditions. More than 5.3 million Americans suffer from the disease, and this year for the first time, Alzheimer’s-related health care costs will surpass a quarter of a trillion dollars. By 2030, these costs are projected to exceed $600 billion. An annual report from the Alzheimer’s Association, released last month, concludes rising rates of Alzheimer’s could eventually bankrupt Medicare.
A major component of these costs is labor and productivity lost due to disability. In the case of neurological diseases, disability-related costs are greater than any other category of illness, the paper’s authors noted.
With limited resources invested in neurological disorders, we haven’t made as much progress in understanding and treating these conditions as we should have. The crisis in neurological funding has led the U.S., along with Japan, to have the lowest growth rate in brain research worldwide.
To avoid potentially catastrophic effects on our health care system, that needs to change.
“What is urgently needed,” Gooch said, “is a sustained capital investment by the federal government into neurological research designed to find effective therapies and cures for these devastating diseases.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Alzheimer’s-rated costs would exceed $600 million by 2030. In fact, they will exceed $600 billion.