Tackling dementia beyond our borders

Most of us know of a family member, friend or loved one who suffers or suffered the slow ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, or know someone who has cared for an Alzheimer’s patient. Those who don’t likely will soon, because cases are skyrocketing, and there is no cure or even effective treatment. While the U.S. has been a leader and has launched a national effort, a broader effort is needed to take on this monstrous disease that takes no prisoners. Alzheimer’s is fatal and knows no borders.

The National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA), which I co-authored with then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), became law in January 2011, requiring the Department of Health and Human (HHS) Services to establish the National Alzheimer’s Project. It set the goal of finding effective treatment or even a cure by 2025.

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NAPA mandated that HHS create and maintain a national plan to take on Alzheimer’s, coordinate research and services across all federal agencies, and accelerate the development of treatments that would prevent, halt, or reverse the course of Alzheimer’s disease. The law also improves early diagnosis and coordination of care and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, and coordinates with international bodies to fight Alzheimer’s globally.

That national plan apparently found favor with the G-8 nations at their first Dementia Summit in London six months ago, which praised NAPA as being comprehensive and forward-looking.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s latest figures, more than 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to explode to 16 million by 2050. On top of the terrible toll Alzheimer’s takes on victims and their families, the disease will cost the nation $214 billion this year, with projections to reach $1.2 trillion by 2050. Nearly 20 percent of Medicare funding is spent on someone with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

According to a 2012 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Alzheimer’s Disease International, there were 35.6 million people globally with dementia, including Alzheimer’s. This number is projected to nearly double every 20 years, increasing to 115.4 million in 2050. The global cost of this condition totaled $604 billion in 2010, roughly equal to the entire gross domestic product of the 18th largest economy in the world.

We need to better understand the level of international cooperation our government can expect in the search for early detection techniques, prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. There has been a successful collaboration among nations and scientists across borders on HIV/AIDS. We need a similar unified front on Alzheimer’s.

I held hearings before and after the London Summit, with witnesses including the head of the U.S. National Institute on Aging and leading non-governmental organizations. All indications are that we will need more than lofty goals and words to deal with this crisis. As more of us live longer worldwide, the threat of developing Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia grows exponentially. We cannot afford to have a strong domestic program to fight Alzheimer’s while international efforts are spotty.

To this end, I have authored a bipartisan resolution, H.Res. 489, which I unveiled in April with co-sponsor Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) and others to call on the HHS secretary to enter into negotiations with the World Health Organization to develop a global Alzheimer’s and dementia action plan focused on research, clinical trials and care, regulatory issues, supportive services for patients and for caregivers, prevention, and public awareness and education.

The resolution also urges the HHS secretary, along with the secretary of the Treasury to develop the foundation for a global Alzheimer’s fund that would provide resources to support implementation of specific strategies of the Global Plan. The effort should involve all other nations that have adopted their own national Alzheimer’s/dementia plans or strategies. The U.S. government is also encouraged to facilitate partnerships with the private sector, such as the current partnership between the National Institutes of Health and 10 pharmaceutical companies to identify new approaches to treat Alzheimer’s and other medical conditions.

The resolution is endorsed by the Alzheimer’s Association, as well as supported by the Leaders Engaged on Alzheimer’s Disease Coalition, a national coalition of 67 member organizations.

It is my hope that H.Res. 489 will move forward and help foster a broad, expanding effort to fight a dreaded disease that threatens millions of people.


Smith has represented New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District since 1981. He sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee and is chairman of its subcommittee on global health. He is also co-chair of the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s Disease.