Alzheimer's and related forms of dementia are a growing national health crisis. The diseases bring immense suffering to individuals, erode the emotional and financial well-being of families, and are on track to burst health-care budgets at all levels. Conquering or ameliorating the afflictions will require the same sort of effort the United States expended in reaching the moon. Only the federal government has the resources to manage that task. Tuesday's unveiling of the National Alzheimer's Plan is a positive first step in what promises to be a long campaign.
It is a battle that must be pushed. About 5.4 million American's currently have Alzheimer's or a related dementia. The ailments spare no one -- rich, poor, famous or unknown. Pat Summitt, the legendary retired coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team, has early onset dementia. Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston had Alzheimer's. More than likely, so does someone in your neighborhood, workplace or church.
Alzheimer's is an implacable foe. It is the nation's sixth-leading killer and there is no cure. Some treatments are available, but they provide only temporary easing of some symptoms. The national plan, announced by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a meeting of the world's top Alzheimer's specialists, was developed in response to a Congressional mandate. It creates an initial blueprint for battling the disease.
That fight is absolutely necessary. If no treatment or cure is found, experts say that about 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer's by 2050. The cost of treating the disease is currently $200 billion annually; at present rates, it will rise to about $1 trillion by 2050. That immense cost does not reflect the toll the disease exacts from sufferers and those charged with their often long-term care. That total, experts agree, is incalculable.
The plan sensibly provides additional funding for research now and in coming years. The funding is welcome. It will expedite research into a disease that still is pretty much a mystery as well as fast-track studies of new treatments like one that suggests a possible link between diabetes and Alzheimer's. That's not the plan's sole component.
Sebelius said the government also will create a new website -- www.alzheimers.gov -- to provide information for families, and set up training programs for health care providers on how to diagnose Alzheimer's and to care for those with it. In addition, it will create a clearinghouse for federal and state governments, and public and private groups, to pool information about the disease and its treatment, and to provide resources for those caring for loved ones. It is a promising approach.
No doubt, the initial plan will be amended in coming years to meet changing needs in research, treatment and care. Such flexibility is required if the national effort to beat back the scourge of Alzheimer's is to have any chance of success.