A bipartisan health crisis that must be addressed now

Juanita Turner prepares to bathe her 80-year-old husband, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. The disease’s toll is rising, but Congress continues to underfund research.
Juanita Turner prepares to bathe her 80-year-old husband, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. The disease’s toll is rising, but Congress continues to underfund research. The Sacramento Bee

Little by little, we are realizing the gathering threat that Alzheimer’s disease poses in this country. As the baby boom generation ages, scarcely a family in America finds itself untouched by the disease.

Alzheimer’s is now, by some measures, the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and the nation’s most expensive health condition. An estimated 5.4 million Americans suffer from it, mostly elderly. Two-thirds of them are women. Another 15.5 million-plus are caregivers. Most who provide care are relatives, and most of them are women.

If those caregivers were paid, which they mostly are not, their work, which goes on round-the-clock, would be worth some $220 billion. Even so, the direct cost of health care for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia, which we do pay, was $109 billion in 2010, according to a RAND Corp. study.

That’s more than the cost of caring for people with heart disease or cancer. Yet in 2014, spending on Alzheimer’s research at the National Institutes of Health was less than half of what the NIH spent on heart disease, and roughly a tenth of the allocation for cancer research.

Indeed, at about $566 million, federal spending on Alzheimer’s research was about a quarter of what former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer paid this year for the Los Angeles Clippers.

This, for a disease that kills an estimated 500,000 Americans a year, a cohort the size of the city of Sacramento, and whose impact is expected to triple over the next 35 years.

Last week, though advocates begged for a $200 million increase in federal funding, Congress parted with just $25 million extra for the coming fiscal year.

It’s a drop in the bucket. And it’s particularly frustrating given the bipartisan momentum that seemed for a while to have gathered amid promising clinical trials on early diagnosis and prevention.

Since the 2011 passage of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, the federal government has focused more aggressively on the disease, with the stated goal of finding a way to treat and prevent it over the next decade. Believe it or not, the current, sad level of federal funding is $122 million higher this year than it used to be, thanks to that attention.

But even conservative estimates indicate that meeting that goal would take a research commitment of some $2 billion annually. That’s why it’s so crucial for President Barack Obama and, particularly, the Republican-controlled Congress to do better.

Right now, of the 14 Republicans in California’s congressional delegation, only Reps. Ken Calvert and Duncan Hunter are listed as members of the 194-member congressional caucus on Alzheimer’s funding. Only Hunter and two others – Reps. David Valadao and Devin Nunes – have scored even a 50 percent rating from advocates at the nonpartisan Alzheimer’s Impact Movement.

This is the disease that consumed Barry Goldwater, Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan, whose deaths were, if anything, a reminder that Alzheimer’s strikes without regard for position or political preference. Shortchanging research dishonors all who have suffered. And this crisis needs to be addressed, now.

If that sounds dramatic, see the series by The Bee’s Anita Creamer, which, during the past year, limned the reality of local Alzheimer’s patients in harrowing detail: wives watching helplessly as their spouses’ very identities vanish, grown children trying vainly to keep 24-hour watch over deteriorating parents.

“You’re a traitor and a liar, and you’re breaking my heart,” a delusional Meredith Holden Cuffe raged as the family she scarcely recognized anymore moved her, at age 87, from her Placerville home to a facility where she’d be safer.

“I plan for the kids’ future, but for us, I’ve stopped,” confided Claire Schooley, whose husband, at 57, has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“She’s forgetting names now. She struggles,” 70-year-old Dennis Colvin said, sitting in an examination room with his wife, Robby, who was the mayor of Placerville less than a decade ago, in another lifetime.

“According to the vows I made before God, I’d honor him in sickness and in health,” said 76-year-old Juanita Turner, keeping vigil in her North Sacramento home over her 80-year-old husband, Grandison Turner Jr.

Here is her reality: Late-stage Alzheimer’s has robbed her husband of the ability to bathe, dress, use the toilet or roll over in bed without his elderly wife’s assistance. He wanders into the streets if unattended. She cannot afford a nursing home, so it’s just her, her family and a Medicare nurse who comes monthly.

Imagine this. Now imagine it over coming decades, as 10,000 baby boomers a day reach retirement age. This is what happens if we do nothing. This is the future, gathering in slow motion.

“Alzheimer’s takes and takes,” Juanita Turner reported from the front lines as her husband receded. “Little by little, until it takes it all.”

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