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Alzheimer’s: The Costliest Killer

Bloomberg Businessweek 4/25/2013

In 2006 former television journalist Meryl Comer described in the Alzheimer’s & Dementia journal what it’s like to care for a husband with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “At night I slip between the bed covers, careful not to disturb the stranger lying there,” she wrote. “Soon he will wake screaming and flailing his arms as if fighting off demons. … Exhausted, I drift off only to reawaken and find myself lying by his side in a pool of urine.” Eleven years earlier, before his diagnosis at age 58, Comer’s husband, Harvey Gralnick, had been chief of hematology and oncology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Now he was detached from reality and unpredictably violent. He knocked out her two front teeth once when she tried to bathe him—an incident she left out of her article. Comer clung to one hope. “Today,” she wrote, “the field is on the brink of major breakthroughs that may lead to more effective treatments and, ultimately, to prevention.”

BW18_OR_alzheimers_inline.jpgSeven years after Comer wrote that article, things are worse. Her husband lingers on, protected at home from the secondary infections that kill many Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes. Now her 93-year-old mother—who in 2006 was just beginning to exhibit Alzheimer’s-related paranoia—has full-blown symptoms and lives with her as well. Comer, who has been named president of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer’s Initiative, puts in 12-hour shifts caring for her husband and mother and spends $100,000 a year on home nursing care, none of it covered by Medicare. She expects to go bankrupt eventually.

Alzheimer’s disease remains incurable and 100 percent fatal. Because of modern medicine’s successes, more people are outliving heart disease, cancer, and stroke, only to be hunted down by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. It’s hard to conceive of a worse way to die than to lose one’s mind. Asked last year in a Home Instead Senior Care/Marist Poll which disease they were most afraid of having, 44 percent of Americans named Alzheimer’s, as many as named cancer and stroke combined.

If nothing is done, Alzheimer’s will become the “financial sinkhole of the 21st century,” says gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, chief executive officer of Age Wave, a consulting firm. Already, treating dementia of all kinds costs more than heart disease or cancer, more than $150 billion a year in the U.S., including the value of informal care, according to a Rand Corp. study released on April 3. 


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