published Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Alzheimer’s heavy toll

There’s no shortage of highly public reminders of the toll that Alzheimer’s disease takes. Recently, Glen Campbell, the Grammy Award-winning singer, announced that he is suffering from the ailment. Last week, when Peter Flak, the beloved “Colombo” of television fame, died, almost every mention of his death included the phrase “Alzheimer’s disease.” Former President Ronald Reagan, actor Charlton Heston and the Peace Corps’ Sargent Shriver also publicly acknowledged they were victims of the disease.

That’s the public view of the malady. The private face is just as heart-rending and more ubiquitous than most Americans know. The disease is widespread, and growing more so as Baby Boomers age.

Currently, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates, about 5.4 million people in the United States are living with the disease. That number is growing at an alarming rate. Someone in the United States develops the disease every 69 seconds. Closer to home, the numbers are equally staggering.

In Tennessee in 2010, about 120,000 people 65 years of age and older had the disease. That’s an increase of 20 percent since 2000. At current rates of growth, the number of Tennesseans afflicted with Alzheimer’s could reach about 140,000 or more by 2025, according to officials. The direct and indirect costs associated with the ailment are mind-boggling.

In Tennessee in 2010, more than 400,000 caregivers provided more than 456,000,000 total of hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s disease. The total value of that care, experts estimate, was nearly $5 billion. Clearly, the disease impacts caregivers just as dramatically as it does those diagnosed with the disease. The emotional costs, especially, are immense, and heard to measure.

The prospect for those with Alzheimer’s disease has improved somewhat in recent years, but not much. There’s still no cure. Alzheimer’s is a progressive and deadly disease that claimed more lives in the United States last year than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

There is hope. Early detection, diagnosis and treatment are vital. Drugs that temporarily improve the symptoms of the disease are available. They can slow but they do not stop damage to brain cells that allow Alzheimer’s to progress. Scientists continue to work toward developing treatments that might further slow or even end the disease’s progression.

The goal is the same now as it has always has been with this disease — finding a way to attack it in its earliest form before brain damage and the mental decline begin. Until that is found, the number of Americans — friends, family and neighbors among them — likely to be stricken by Alzheimer’s and the public and private cost of caring for them will continue to grow.

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