About 14 million, or roughly 18 percent, of the USA's 79 million baby boomers can expect to develop Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia in their lifetime, a newly released report shows.
Americans are developing Alzheimer's at an accelerating rate, says Stephen McConnell, vice president of public policy for the Alzheimer's Association.
Medical advances have allowed people to beat cancer and heart disease. But with longer life comes the added risk of Alzheimer's, a progressive brain disease that causes severe memory loss and confusion.
The oldest baby boomers are turning 62 this year and are by definition entering the risk zone. Age is the single biggest risk factor for the disease: The likelihood of developing Alzheimer's doubles every five years after age 65.
"What we're faced with here is the boomer population coming of age," says Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging. "There are going to be a lot more people at risk."
The report, "2008 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures," states that one out of eight boomers will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the most common type of dementia, at some point. If no cure for Alzheimer's is found, the nation will be faced with a half-million new cases of Alzheimer's in 2010 and nearly a million a year by the middle of the century.
The report doesn't minimize the burden on the population today, noting that 5.2 million people now have the disease, which can take more than 10 years to destroy the mind. That figure includes a small group of people struggling with the disease in the prime of life. The report says as many as 500,000 Americans are diagnosed before the age of 65.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, 70% of people with Alzheimer's and other dementias live at home, where friends and family members pitch in to help them, often at great cost. The report notes:
In 2007, nearly 10 million Americans ages 18 and older provided 8.4 billion hours of unpaid care to Alzheimer's patients — care valued at about $89 billion.
A quarter of a million children ages 8 to 18 are providing care to loved ones with Alzheimer's. The care provided by young people ranges from companionship to more taxing duties such as helping an elderly relative get dressed, McConnell says.
There are up to 1.4 million long-distance caregivers in the USA. About 1 million live more than two hours away, and an additional 400,000 live at least an hour away from their loved ones.
The coming Alzheimer's epidemic will, if left unchecked, put a huge strain on the health care system, including Medicare. In 2005, Medicare spent $91 billion on Alzheimer's and other dementias, and spending could jump to $160 billion by 2010 and $189 billion by 2015.
If researchers developed treatments that simply delayed the age of onset for Alzheimer's, that alone could save Medicare billions.
"We don't need to cure this disease," McConnell says. "If we could just make a dent in it, the savings would be huge."