Nearly 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s today – it is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.  Within ten years, the government estimates that more than $2 trillion will be spent on care for those with Alzheimer’s. For every dollar the government spends today on the costs of Alzheimer’s care, it invests less than a penny in research to find a cure. More funding and new ideas are needed to one day eradicate this unforgiving disease. 

More Americans fear the specter of Alzheimer’s than cancer, stroke or any other debilitating condition combined, according to a September 2014 study from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave. And with good reason. More than 100 years after the devastating disease was first identified, we still know little about the causes or the cure for it. Before Baby Boomers reach their 70s, generating a massive wave of new Alzheimer’s patients, we need a dramatically new approach to the way we fund research and development of new medicines and therapies for the disease. 

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Unpredictable, uncontrollable and costly, Alzheimer’s has become one of the most devastating diseases of our lifetime. Few approved drugs have survived clinical trials. Those that have made it to market address only symptoms, rather than Alzheimer’s underlying pathology.  

Because of failures to develop breakthrough medications, the annual global cost of treating Alzheimer’s in 2010 was an estimated $604 billion – a staggering one percent of global GDP. Without new treatments, over the next 40 years the number of Alzheimer’s cases and its associated costs are predicted to quadruple.  

Adequately addressing the research, development and infrastructure challenges associated with Alzheimer’s will require a rapid increase in spending. A global funding goal of at least one percent of the annual cost of treating the disease – or $6 billion per year – is a reasonable target and a massive increase over current spending levels for research and development by pharmaceutical companies and governments. 

With government finances sorely stressed, it would be a critical mistake to think we can rely on public financing alone. We should also consider more innovative approaches centered on a collaborative, cross-sector effort that links the search for a cure with the world’s private investment markets. 

One approach along these lines may be social impact investing, a new and emerging opportunity that allows private investors to pursue investment returns while supporting causes that reflect their values and priorities. Social impact investing has worked to bring new funds to other critical societal issues such as foster care and recidivism among the formerly incarcerated – it may also work to speed progress around Alzheimer’s.  

How big is the potential market for investment? In the U.S. alone, high-net-worth household assets are estimated to be more than $20 trillion. Worldwide, financial assets under management easily top $100 trillion. Tapping into just a small fraction of this liquidity could generate the $6 billion per year in research investment needed to help more quickly find a cure or better treatments for the disease.  

Unleashing the power of this massive global liquidity through private investments in order to address a complex and vexing social challenge like Alzheimer’s would be no small feat. Fortunately, capital markets are becoming increasingly skilled at precisely this kind of financial calculus. 

Most importantly, aligning the interests of investors, government and researchers would allow the medical and investment communities to pool risks, speed innovation and reward concrete results. With Alzheimer’s, social impact investing could be used to accelerate research through a “pay for success” model that links investment returns to milestones in drug development. As an example, reaching specific targets along the path to drug development – for instance moving from basic science to early human testing, or from phase two to phase three clinical trials – could trigger incremental return to investors. Efforts to identify and finance improved patient care and effective interventions could also benefit from this type of disciplined approach that rewards success.  

While it has been over a decade since a new Alzheimer’s drug has made it to market, many studies are underway that could pave the way toward significant breakthroughs. Drug development in treatments targeting the central nervous system has a single digit success rate, yet steady advances in brain science offer hope for a cure.   

But progress is agonizingly slow – especially for current Alzheimer’s sufferers, their families and caregivers. Increased investment can only help speed progress. Social impact investing offers one innovative approach to increasing funding and unleashing the power of private markets to help stop this deadly disease in its tracks. The time to act is now.

Sieg is head of global wealth and retirement solutions for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Vradenburg is chairman and co-founder of USAgainstAlzheimer’s. They are also founding members of the Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer’s Disease.