Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s star may have dimmed, but he had some very good ideas that deserve to outlast his campaign. One of them was a bold proposal to tackle Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Gingrich grew emotional on TV in December as he recalled his mother’s struggles in her final years. But brain illnesses, he argues, are not only tragic for the people afflicted but financially ruinous for the country.
“Alzheimer’s affects millions of people, and it affects the families of millions of people because an Alzheimer’s caregiver is twice as likely to have a health problem as somebody who’s not a caregiver,” Gingrich said. “Alzheimer’s is going to cost us, between now and 2050, as much as $20 trillion dollars.”
The National Institutes of Health estimates that more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s and that figure could more than double by 2050 as the U.S. population gets older. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 180,000 people 65 or older suffer in Michigan from the disease, which the NIH describes as a progressive, irreversible brain disorder that destroys memory and thinking skills.
The federal government is boosting spending on Alzheimer’s research by $130 million this year and next. It’s allotting an additional $50 million this year, and it’s requesting $530 million in the fiscal 2013 budget, an increase of $80 million. The money will help finance efforts to identify genes and risk factors that predispose people to Alzheimer’s and to test therapies. The goal is to be able to treat and prevent the disease by 2025.
“If you look at the cost of Alzheimer’s now,” says Rudolph Tanzi, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, “and you look at how many patients we’re going to have in 2030 because of the baby boomer phenomenon, then it can be predicted that our entire federal budget will be consumed caring for Alzheimer patients by 2030 if we don’t do something about this disease between now and then.”