A global view of Alzheimer’s

In a recent Health Imaging cover story, we looked at the changing demographics of the U.S. and the impact an aging population will have on the rates of a variety of conditions. In 2010, the number of Americans aged 65 or older was 40.5 million. By 2050, that number will more than double to 89 million—making up about a quarter of the U.S. population.

The growing population of seniors means more people reaching the age of greatest risk for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Some sobering numbers: 5.2 million Americans are living with AD, but by 2050, that number will spike to as many as 16 million people aged 65 and older with the disease. If no major breakthroughs in treatment are made in the near future, changing demographics will push national costs of AD past $1 trillion by 2050, including a 500 percent increase in combined Medicare and Medicaid spending on the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

There is some good news that is being masked by these projections, however, as research revealed this week at Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in Copenhagen showed. While the absolute number of dementia cases is increasing due to aging populations, developed nations have cut down on the rate of dementia. A study from the University of Michigan and the VA Ann Arbor Center for Clinical Management Research found a dip in rates in the U.S., England, the Netherlands and Sweden, thanks largely to improved education efforts and stringent healthcare measures.

While developing countries are showing some positive signs, news from AAIC was not as rosy for developing countries, which may be underrepresented in dementia data. One example was Colombia, where dementia may be underestimated up to 50 percent. Areas of Asia and Africa may be underrepresented as well, with obesity and diabetes having an impact on cognitive health and pushing dementia numbers higher than previously thought.

Some good news and some bad, but the bottom line is there is more work left to be done. Currently, the National Institutes of Health spends $6 billion a year on cancer research, $4 billion on heart disease research and $3 billion on HIV/AIDS research. In contrast, only about $500 million per year is devoted to AD. We’ve made great strides in boosting cancer survival and reducing cardiovascular disease rates, perhaps it’s time to increase the resources devoted to battling AD.

-Evan Godt
Editor – Health Imaging