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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Alzheimer’s emerges as campaign issue

Guest Commentary

Alzheimer’s is a disease that touches one in three families in America and poses an enormous threat to the financial stability of the United States. Yet, Alzheimer’s disease has seldom been considered a national issue nor been discussed by presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

In recent months, that has changed: More and more candidates are discussing Alzheimer’s as a national campaign issue.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has made Alzheimer’s disease one of the centerpieces of his campaign, outlining a series of proposals in his new “21st Century Contract with America” that emphasize the need for greater brain science research, medical innovation and a more agile Federal Drug Administration.

How to fund research is at the core of the debate over how to defeat Alzheimer’s. Currently, the NIH only invests around $450 million per year toward Alzheimer’s research – less than $90 per person living with the disease.

Some, like Gingrich and Jon Huntsman, have stated these funding levels are inadequate, while Mitt Romney has said he believes funding should be determined by mortality rates, not lobbyists or votes.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has argued that “a cure is always better and cheaper than care.” Others, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have said they see promise in stem cell research and FDA reform – something that Bachmann and Gingrich also support.

On the campaign trail and in New Hampshire town halls, individuals affected by Alzheimer’s are asking how we stop the disease and find a cure. Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and remains the only disease in the top ten with no disease-modifying treatment or cure. Without a cure, Alzheimer’s is expected to have a devastating impact on the nation in the coming years.

The U.S. currently spends $183 billion annually on Alzheimer’s, mostly in Medicare and Medicaid expenses. But as baby boomers age, that will change. In the next decade, Alzheimer’s will cost the U.S. $2 trillion. By 2050, Alzheimer’s is projected to cost $1 trillion annually.

In New Hampshire alone, there are 22,000 people who suffer from the disease and nearly 64,000 unpaid caregivers who put their lives on hold to tend to the needs of their loved ones.

Stopping Alzheimer’s before we are engulfed by the “silver tsunami” will be a challenge. But the United States has overcome seemingly larger-than-life obstacles before.

We’re the nation that cured polio. We’re the nation that put a man on the moon in just eight years. And with a committed investment and national plan, says the research community, we will be the nation that stops Alzheimer’s by 2020.

George Vradenburg is the co-founder of USAgainstAlzheimer’s. Joel Maiola is the former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg.