Medicare turns 50 this week, but if we want to help ensure it's available for people who are now 50 when they reach retirement age, Americans of all ages should make one wish as we blow out the birthday candles: Breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s disease research.

In addition to the human suffering it causes, Alzheimer’s is America’s most expensive disease — so expensive that it could bankrupt Medicare. Alzheimer’s, and other dementias, cost the country more each year than cancer or heart disease, according to The New England Journal of Medicine. As the baby boomers age, 28 million of them will develop Alzheimer’s, according to a study released last week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, and the associated costs will skyrocket in the absence of treatments that stop or even slow the disease.


A report from the Alzheimer’s Association — based on an economic model created by the independent research firm, The Lewin Group — projects that Medicare spending on people with Alzheimer’s will more than quadruple in just over a generation, to $589 billion annually in 2050. To put this in context, Medicare spends nearly one-in-five dollars on people with Alzheimer’s today. By 2050, it will be nearly one-in-three.

A primary reason for these daunting numbers is that Alzheimer’s makes treating other diseases more expensive, and most individuals with Alzheimer’s suffer from more than one chronic condition. For example, a senior with diabetes and Alzheimer’s costs Medicare 81 percent more than a senior who only has diabetes.

The danger that Alzheimer’s poses to both Medicare and the federal budget is clear. So too is the way out: More research. Alzheimer’s is the only leading cause of death that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed, yet for every $26,000 spent by Medicare and Medicaid to care for individuals with Alzheimer’s, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends only $100 on Alzheimer’s research.

This year, the NIH is projected to spend more than $5 billion on cancer, $3 billion on HIV/AIDS and nearly $2 billion on cardiovascular disease. By contrast, NIH is expected to spend only $586 million on Alzheimer’s disease.

Until recently, there was no federal government strategy to address the Alzheimer’s epidemic and its inevitable crippling of Medicare if left unchecked. But in 2010, Congress unanimously passed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA), mandating the development of the country’s first-ever national Alzheimer’s plan. The subsequent National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease, released in 2012, established a clear-cut goal: “Prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease by 2025.”

The federal government made significant progress this year to help ensure we reach that goal. Thanks in part to Alzheimer’s Association advocates nationwide, Congress passed the Alzheimer’s Accountability Act in December, creating a mechanism for the NIH to directly inform Congress how much funding scientists need in order to meet the 2025 goal. And on Monday, NIH scientists responded, calling for an increase in the federal Alzheimer’s research budget of an additional $323 million in fiscal year 2017, the first in a series of annual professional judgement budgets through 2025.

This comes on the heels of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees' approval in June of 50-60 percent increases in federal funding for Alzheimer’s research in 2016. This progress represents a historic step forward, but we still have a long way to go before we reach the $2 billion in annual funding that scientists have said is necessary to meet this challenge head on.

Meeting the 2025 goal will save millions of lives and trillions of dollars, with significant implications for Medicare’s fiscal future. An Alzheimer’s Association report showed that a treatment delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s by just five years would save Medicare $345 billion in the first 10 years alone.

Our nation has a strong track record in funding disease research. Significant federal investments in research to combat cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS all led to dramatic advancements in research and successful treatments for each.

Despite the underfunding, a promising research pipeline for Alzheimer’s is developing, but with insufficient funding to fulfill that promise. Urgent action is required to meet the 2025 goal — action that is commensurate with the triple threat Alzheimer’s poses with its soaring prevalence, enormous cost and lack of treatment.

Happy Birthday, Medicare. Let’s urge Congress to continue to show leadership on this issue by supporting the full $2 billion in annual Alzheimer’s funding to combat this disease. That’s a critical path forward to improving Medicare’s chances of celebrating more birthdays.

Johns is president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association, the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support and research. For more information, visit