By Diana DeGette
Chances are that you or someone you know has recently walked into a room on an errand and forgotten what it was, or maybe blanked on a new acquaintance’s name, or mislaid an important item and hunted around for it, perplexed.
People of all ages who are under stress, in a rush or in unfamiliar environments face these little lapses all the time. They are also part of the normal aging process. Normally, we can laugh them off.
But these lapses are no laughing matter for those at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. They may be harbingers of far worse to come: serious memory loss, confusion, mood and behavior changes, deepening disorientation and difficulty speaking, walking and even swallowing. People who struggle with Alzheimer’s or who care for someone who has the disease know that it’s simply devastating.
Alzheimer’s is the only disease among the top 10 causes of death in the United States that can’t be prevented or cured. One in nine Americans age 65 and up has Alzheimer’s. Every 66 seconds, another person in this country develops it – and it will be every 33 seconds by the middle of this century, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent, cure or mitigate the disease.
In Colorado alone, the number of people with Alzheimer’s could rise from the current estimated 67,000 to 92,000 by 2025 – an increase of more than one-third.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Today there is a worldwide effort to find better ways to treat Alzheimer’s, delay its onset and prevent it altogether. And much of this work is being done in the United States.
Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI) and I are the authors of a major, bipartisan bill called the 21st Century Cures Act (H.R. 6) that modernizes how the federal government does medical research, provides more funding and eases regulatory burdens to allow new discoveries in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
One part of this bill also increases funding for the National Institutes of Health, including a substantial new innovation fund. I have long supported a robust NIH budget and am eager to see it boosted again through the annual appropriations process but, regardless of how that turns out this year, a special innovation fund at NIH would go a long way toward spurring research breakthroughs.
I’m also a cosponsor of the HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act (H.R. 1559), which provides Medicare coverage for diagnosis and critical services to improve the lives of Americans with Alzheimer’s.
Some might argue that the funds are better spent on some of our country’s other pressing needs, but without more advances in prevention and treatment, the demand for Alzheimer’s care will only become more costly. Already, over the next 20 years, caring for people with the disease will cost the nation $20 trillion, with 60 percent of that borne by Medicare and Medicaid. And, of course, that doesn’t begin to count the personal toll that the disease takes on all who are affected, persons with the diagnosis and caregivers alike.
When you consider that 90 percent of what medical science now knows about Alzheimer’s has been discovered in the last 15 years thanks to accelerated research, just think of what we could do with more substantial support. Better understanding will lead to new treatments, improved care and, eventually, a cure.
Then, maybe one day in the future, Alzheimer’s itself will be all but forgotten.
Diana DeGette, who represents Colorado’s First District to Congress, has been deeply engaged in health care policy matters throughout her professional life. She is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and ranking member of its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
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