Obama administration must keep up the fight to defeat Alzheimer’s

“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America, there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

Those are the words of former President Reagan, who struggled with Alzheimer’s disease with incredible grace and dignity. He noted at the time that he was one of millions of Americans afflicted with the illness. Now it is projected that by 2050, as many as 16 million Americans will suffer from Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia that is a progressive, disabling and terminal disease of the mind and body. In 2013 alone, the direct costs of caring for those with Alzheimer’s will total an estimated $203 billion, including $142 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid. 

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President Obama has demonstrated leadership by his most recent announcement of the BRAIN initiative — Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — to focus on activity and connections in the brain to better understand diseases like Alzheimer’s. Mapping brain connections could perhaps offer treatment options and ultimately change the trajectory of the disease, which is imperative given the challenging budget climate.

When I served on the Select Committee on Aging in the Senate, I was surprised to learn that there was no coordinated effort to prevent, treat and ultimately develop a cure for Alzheimer’s, the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2010, I introduced the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA), a pertinent measure for the assessment of current efforts on Alzheimer’s and development of a clear road map for prevention and effective treatment by 2025. Since the measure was signed into law in 2011, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius has demonstrated support for NAPA by carrying out a coordinated approach to alter the alarming forecast of millions of Americans at risk of this disease.

To reach the 2025 goal, it remains critical that the Obama administration support breakthrough technologies that improve discovery of the disease as early as possible, which is consistent with NAPA’s 2013 recommendations. Typically, after experiencing memory loss, patients go for further evaluation by a physician; at that point, the patient may have a brain scan to identify Alzheimer’s disease or another cognitive condition. Information from such a scan would allow for a better plan for dealing with the disease, which often requires 24-hour care, and related caregiving costs are expected to exceed $800 billion by 2050. 

FDA-approved brain imaging technologies, such as beta amyloid, can enable earlier and more accurate diagnosis in people with suspected Alzheimer’s or other cognitive dysfunction, thereby paving the way for a more effective treatment plan. The Alzheimer’s community, including clinicians, researchers and patient advocacy organizations, has expressed support for coverage of this technology for seniors who are suspect for this disease. If needed, early diagnosis could accelerate the development of treatment plans to delay certain symptoms. Imaging could also prevent misdiagnosis, which statistics show affects between 17 percent and 30 percent of Alzheimer’s patients, as more than 100 health conditions are often mistaken for this disease. Misdiagnosis leads to futile treatment of seniors and their loss of quality of life, not to mention the toll on caregivers and costs associated with such an error. 

It is vital that the momentum continue on early detection and more accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. It will make a difference for those already showing symptoms as well as affect their support network of loved ones and caregivers. Let’s work toward the bright dawn ahead President Reagan believed in for America. With continued progress, sufferers of Alzheimer’s and their loved ones will experience the sunrise too.

Bayh was the governor of Indiana from 
1989-1996 and U.S. senator from Indiana from 1998-2011.