The Ebola virus is a clear danger to U.S. public health, and our nation’s response – both here and abroad, as unsteady as it has been at times – demonstrates how quickly we can act once we recognize the stakes are high. The administration has now requested $6 billion in funding to address Ebola. From my vantage point as a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Surgeon General, I appreciate the importance of quick action when American lives are at stake. One lesson from this experience is the importance of being proactive. Had we already provided funding to the National Institutes of Health to address Ebola, we might be addressing this crisis with vaccines in hand that would fundamentally change the nature of our response.
There are other lessons too, and the most important of them does not even center on Ebola itself. Our nation is facing a far more dangerous public health crisis than Ebola, and the response has been altogether inadequate.
While Ebola is a potential disaster in the United States we must address decisively, Alzheimer’s disease is already today a deadly disaster for millions of American families that we have largely ignored. It is a threat to both public health and to our economy. That is what should frighten people.
Alzheimer’s is the most under-recognized threat to public health in the 21st century. It is a fatal disease that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed. And the $6 billion that the Administration just requested? That’s more than the U.S. federal government has spent on Alzheimer’s research over the entirety of the last decade.
So far there have been four U.S. cases of Ebola and one death. And while every death is tragic, an estimated 500,000 Americans will die this year because they have Alzheimer's disease. But this disease doesn’t stop there. Alzheimer’s care – because we don’t yet have effective treatments – costs the nation $214 billion annually.
Alzheimer’s is not, of course, contagious. However, because it is driven by age-related demographics its impact will grow as if it were. The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s will grow from more than 5 million today to as many as 16 million by mid-century. Caring for people with Alzheimer’s will cost our country $20 trillion in today’s dollars over this same period. Those numbers forecast a bleak future of overworked caregivers, overloaded nursing homes, an overwhelmed health care system, over-taxed state and federal budgets.
If you happen to be more frightened by Ebola than by Alzheimer’s, consider this: At the age of 65, 1 in 9 Americans has Alzheimer’s. At the age of 85, that number jumps to 1 in 3. While there is virtually no chance of contracting Ebola in the U.S. right now, the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s or needing to care for someone with Alzheimer’s is staggering. Thankfully, some who have developed Ebola have survived. No one has yet survived Alzheimer’s.
Progress on Alzheimer’s is being held back by limited funding. For every $26,500 Medicare and Medicaid spend on Alzheimer’s care, the NIH spends only $100 on research. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), described the current state of affairs when he testified on Alzheimer’s research before Congress earlier this year: “We are not, at the moment, limited by ideas. We are not limited by scientific opportunities. We are not limited by talent. We are, unfortunately, limited by resources...”
Once we recognize the stakes are high, we’ve seen how focused our country can be on solving a public health crisis. In addition to current action on Ebola, the number of deaths from heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, HIV and stroke are all declining due to decisive action. Meanwhile, the deaths and devastation from Alzheimer’s disease continue to soar.
Yes, Ebola is rare and deadly. But Alzheimer’s is devastatingly common, and has taken far more lives. We can alter this future. As the Ebola crisis demonstrates, America can rise to meet challenges when the case is clear. The Alzheimer’s crisis is upon us, the case is clear, and so is the need. If we have the resources to address Ebola, we have them for Alzheimer’s too. All said and done, it really is that simple. It is time to bring Alzheimer’s to the front of our agenda.
Satcher is former director of the CDC and former Surgeon General.