Projected Alzheimer’s epidemic could cost state billions of dollars

As waves of baby boomers reach their 70s, the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute warns that Alzheimer’s is on the brink of setting off a state public health disaster and, with it, creating a financial burden costing billions of dollars.

In 2010, an estimated 120,000 Wisconsin residents lived with Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

By 2025, Alzheimer’s grip could impact close to 130,000 Wisconsinites over age 65, according to Dr. Mark Sager, emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and former director of the WAI.

“We’re entering a period when the aging of the baby boomers is going to increase the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease substantially, but we have no treatment (and) no prevention,” said Sager, who helped launch the WAI in 1998 under the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

The WAI’s multifaceted mission helps strengthen public understanding of Alzheimer’s and related dementias, boost research surrounding causes and treatments, and provide support to those impacted by the disease.


Nationally, well over five million people suffer from Alzheimer’s, the National Institutes of Health reports.

If the medical community cannot develop treatment and figure out how to reduce the prevalence of Alzheimer’s, “the extraordinary long-term care costs” of the disease will take a dramatic financial toll on patients, caregivers and taxpayers, Sager said.

“We’re going to have a very different society in 30 years if we do not in some way either learn how to prevent the disease or treat it effectively,” he said.


‘Devastating economic impact’

An April 2013 report on the monetary costs of dementia in the United States projected total costs in 2010 of between $157 billion and $215 billion.

The same report, led by the nonprofit research organization RAND Corp. and published by The New England Journal of Medicine, predicted that by 2040 that cost would more than double to about $511 billion – a figure rivaling costs of cancer and heart disease.

Merging information from the report with Wisconsin demographics, Sager determined that Alzheimer’s costs about $4.5 billion annually in Wisconsin. And that’s a conservative estimate, he said.

That total is broken down into purchase cost for things like long-term care and Medicare, and forgone wages of caregivers, who miss work while tending to Alzheimer’s patients. Sager estimated annual purchase cost in the state at $3.1 billion and total forgone wages at $1.4 billion.

“Most of the costs will be either lost wages or long-term care costs, and unless a person has long-term care insurance the individual will have to pay out of pocket until they are impoverished,” Sager said. “And then they become eligible for the state Medicaid program.”

With Medicaid accruing the tremendous costs attached to Alzheimer’s, rather than Medicare, taxpayers in Wisconsin will ultimately be responsible for covering those costs, he said.

Neither Sager nor Dr. Sterling Johnson, associate director for research at the WAI, believes that the potential Alzheimer’s epidemic and the financial weight of it are known widely among the general public.

“I don’t think it’s widespread enough, or if it is, it’s not raising the alarms that it should be raising,” Johnson said. “This is going to have a devastating economic impact on the State of Wisconsin and on the entire United States.”

As the WAI continues to spread awareness about Alzheimer’s diagnosis rates and its leading research efforts, the DHS is in the early stages of rolling out the “Wisconsin Dementia Care System Redesign.” The comprehensive plan, introduced earlier this year, seeks to “provide a foundation for building a more dementia-capable system of care in Wisconsin, one which will move us closer to achieving the vision of providing the highest possible quality of life for all state residents with dementia,” according to a February plan draft.

The plan specifically addresses dementia issues related to community awareness and services, facility-based long-term care, care for individuals with challenging behaviors, dementia care standards and training, and research and data collection.

Short on funds

The struggle to find effective treatment for Alzheimer’s patients as they progress through the disease is compounded by inadequate funding to support breakthrough research, according to the WAI.

“As a society, we have not committed the resources to do the kind of research that would be necessary to develop an effective treatment,” Sager said.

On a national scope, research of Alzheimer’s causes and treatment is backed by about $600 million annually, as determined by the NIH. But that figure is dwarfed by funding for research of other diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, heart disease and cancer.

It also falls significantly short of targets defined by the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, a law established in 2011 to develop a strategic plan that can address the looming public health crisis. The Alzheimer’s Association has recommended that that plan immediately ramp up research funding to $2 billion annually.

“We’re far from that goal, and so I think the nation has to make this a priority,” Johnson said. “If we’re spending $200 billion a year in health care for Alzheimer’s disease, we ought to be able to spend one percent of that on research.”

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