O'Connor, senators headline launch of anti-Alzheimer's campaign

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor joined Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Wednesday morning to announce a new push for Alzheimer's research that aims to cure the disease by 2020.

The campaign — called USAgainstAlzheimer's — named as its first goal the passage of the Alzheimer's Breakthrough Act, which would allocate $2 billion for research by the National Institutes of Health. The Senate version has 45 co-sponsors.

"This [disease] is a grave and growing challenge, especially in its burden on families and cost to the healthcare system," said O'Connor, whose husband died of Alzheimer's in 2009. "That is why we need a focused national strategic response. It can't just be business as usual."

Research by the independent Alzheimer's Study Group, of which O'Connor was a part, found that of the NIH’s annual $31.2 billion budget, about $527 million, or just over 1 percent, was used for Alzheimer's research last year.

By comparison, AIDS researchers at the NIH received more than $3 billion.

The Alzheimer's Association, meanwhile, estimates $172 billion is spent annually on patient care, or 400 times the amount spent on research.

Individual Medicaid payments also tend to be much higher for beneficiaries with Alzheimer's.

"This is surely an issue that ought to bring us all together," said Collins, chairwoman of the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer's Disease, on Wednesday. "It should be one of the priorities of the lame-duck Congress."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, was unable to attend the event at the last minute.

USAgainstAlzheimer's Board Chairman George Vradenburg named Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Reps. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) as among a growing group of lawmakers interested in Alzheimer's issues.

"Many are coming forward because they themselves have lost family members," said Vradenburg. "We see legislators of every ideological stripe wanting to bring focus to this issue, and as they work together for solutions, we will get something even better."

A poll commissioned by USAgainstAlzheimer's revealed that 77 percent of Americans have a connection to someone with the disease, and six in 10 support increased funding for research.

"The public feels very well-informed about this issue," said Vradenburg. "It's no longer about raising awareness. We want action."

Alzheimer's, which is the sixth leading cause of death among Americans, slowly destroys memory and cognitive skills. The number of diagnoses is expected to nearly triple in the next decade.

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