Dr. Ronald C. Petersen, director of the Mayo Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and the newly appointed leader of the the national Advisory Council on Alzheimer's Disease Research, Care and Services, doesn't sugarcoat things.
He, along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Dr. Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, met with the Post-Bulletin Editorial Board on Wednesday. When we asked Peterson why an early diagnosis of Alzheimer's was important, his answer probably wasn't the one people would want to hear.
"An early diagnosis lets the family know what they can expect, so they can do financial planning early in the disease's progression, things of that nature," he said. "But early diagnosis will be even more important when we have a meaningful therapy."
In other words, the current treatments for Alzheimer's aren't highly effective, and early diagnosis essentially gives people more time to prepare for the mental and physical decline that is certain to occur.
That's the current situation, and it is undeniably depressing. Today, 5.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's, and by 2030, as the Baby Boom generation ages, that number will reach 7.7 million.
So is there hope? Absolutely, and it exists on several levels.
Consider that we're spending $183 billion per year on Alzheimer's care. Klobuchar told us 70 percent of that is taxpayer dollars, yet we're spending just $450 million per year on Alzheimer's research. That's barely a drop in the bucket, so there's plenty of room to grow. Klobuchar is a co-sponsor of the Alzheimer's Breakthrough Act, which would more than quadruple the federal Alzheimer's research budget.
Until we make a far more serious investment in Alzheimer's research, we won't know whether a cure — or at least an effective treatment — can be found.
Secondly, consider the advances that already have taken place, despite that limited federal investment. Petersen said that although we don't yet know how to cure or prevent Alzheimer's, our understanding of its causes and how it progresses has increased exponentially during the past decade, and advances in imaging technology have made early diagnosis much easier, if not 100 percent certain.
And that early diagnosis, even without a cure, is still important. From a strictly financial standpoint, Klobuchar said research at the V.A. Hospital in Minneapolis found that Alzheimer's patients who were diagnosed early spent less money on testing for other diseases.
But more importantly, early diagnosis — before any symptoms are evident — could open other research possibilities. "There's a lot of suspicion that some of the treatments that have not been working have been tested, out of necessity until now, on individuals who already had symptoms," Hodes said. "By using this new imaging technology, and testing treatments that have already been tested, in addition to new ones at that early stage, there may be a far better likelihood of success than there has been up until now."
Make no mistake: We still appear to be years away from a game-changing discovery in the battle against Alzheimer's. But as Congress continues to grapple with budget cuts that could top $1.2 trillion, this is one area in which we can't afford to cut costs.