Alzheimer’s disease has grown to be one of the most pressing and tragic public health issues facing the U.S. With no known cure and the number of people affected expected to triple by 2050, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that by mid-century someone in the U.S will develop Alzheimer’s disease every 33 seconds.
In the documentary above, “Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts,” you can see firsthand the steep social and economic consequences of this disease, along with its ability to completely overwhelm not only the patient but also their caregivers. Families dealing with this disease are families in crisis.
“This ‘tsunami’ of Alzheimer’s will not only be a profound human tragedy, but an overwhelming economic one as well. Due to the length of time people live with the illness and need care, it’s the most expensive medical condition in the U.S.,” the film’s website explains, adding:
“Future costs for Alzheimer’s threaten to bankrupt Medicare, Medicaid and the life savings of millions of Americans. It is estimated that if the number of patients triples as projected in the years ahead, the costs to care for them will exceed $1.1 trillion.”
Roles of Mother and Daughter Reversed
Via three featured personal stories, the documentary takes you into the lives of those living with the realities of Alzheimer’s every day. Aside from the emotional and physical toll, many struggle to pay for the long-term care this disease requires, while others are isolated in rural communities without access to care at all.
There, simply “the risk of wandering off can be fatal,” the film poignantly points out. While Alzheimer’s disease is typically diagnosed in people aged 65 and over (5.2 million of the 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease are 65 or older), about 200,000 people have younger-onset Alzheimer’s.
This is also addressed in the film, via the story of Daisy Duarte, the full-time caregiver for her mother Sonia, who was diagnosed with a genetic form of early-onset Alzheimer’s five years ago. “Daisy also carries the gene, so she is witnessing her own future as she cares for her mother,” the film explains.
Daisy is taking part in a clinical trial of an experimental drug to see if it changes the outcome of the genetic mutation, which, according to the film, virtually guarantees she’ll develop early-onset Alzheimer’s like her mother.
As the years pass, Daisy watches her mother lose the ability to help around the house, feed herself or shower. She also can no longer identify her daughter. With her mother now virtually helpless and unable to take care of her basic needs, the role of mother and daughter have been reversed.
Struggles to Place Loved Ones in Memory Care Facilities
Rick Shannon of Tampa, Florida, also shared his story caring for his mother Phyllis, who has Alzheimer’s.
In the state of Florida, a region that draws retirees from across the U.S., an estimated 510,000 people are living with the disease. This is expected to increase to 720,000 by 2025.
Phyllis has lived alone since her husband died seven months earlier, a living situation that becomes increasingly unsafe as the disease progresses. Family members have found her wandering off near the edge of a pond and nearly starting fires while cooking.
Shannon grapples with feelings of guilt and financial hardship in placing his mother in an assisted living facility that specializes in caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, at costs of $4,000 to $6,000 a month.
Neither Medicare nor private health insurance pays for the type of care Phyllis and many other Alzheimer’s patients need.
Patients must typically exhaust their life savings before applying for help from Medicaid. The state then determines how much money will be devoted to long-term care programs. When enough funding isn’t available, patients are added to waiting lists that may go on for five years.
Others living with Alzheimer’s end up in emergency rooms for medical care, often unable to give doctors any details about their condition or symptoms. As a result, extensive diagnostic tests are required to figure out what’s going on with the patient. The film noted:
“Every test adds to the cost, and the workups are complicated by the fact that almost every patient with Alzheimer’s also has many other health issues …
People with Alzheimer’s are admitted to the hospital twice as often as people the same age without Alzheimer’s. Their costs for hospital admissions are almost three times as high.
They tend to stay longer and be readmitted more often. Hospital care is the most expensive part of the health care system. Since the majority of Alzheimer’s patients are over 65, they’re mostly covered by federal dollars through Medicare.”
It’s estimated that 1 out of every 5 Medicare dollars currently goes toward Alzheimer’s care, and this is expected to increase to 1 out of every 3 in coming years. Adding to the costs, the stress of caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s often sends caregivers into emergency rooms as well.
In cases where the caregivers are admitted to the hospital, their loved one with Alzheimer’s may also be admitted because they have nowhere else to go. In desperation, some families even drop off their relatives with Alzheimer’s outside of emergency rooms, knowing they will be admitted.
Also speaking to the enormity of the problem, the Alzheimer’s Association operates 24-hour helplines with phones that virtually never stop ringing.
Rural Alzheimer’s Patients Face Unique Struggles
In rural New Hampshire, the film follows family doctors struggling to care for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers with limited resources. About 40 percent of people with memory problems in the state live alone.
Many struggle with fears of losing their independence, but have no access to the specialized services or even hospitals or public transportation to get medical care. Shortages of doctors and facilities to care for Alzheimer’s patients are widespread in New Hampshire, leaving such patients with limited or no options.
The area’s long winters pose another hazard, especially since 6 of every 10 Alzheimer’s patients will wander at some point. State fish and wildlife officers may be called to search for lost patients.
Lack of funding for Alzheimer’s care is a problem not only in New Hampshire but at a federal level. The film calls for increased awareness and federal funding for Alzheimer’s research, noting that out of the top 10 disease causes of death, Alzheimer’s is the only one with no survivors and no way to stop the progression of the disease.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for instance, spends $5 billion a year on cancer research, $3 billion on HIV/AIDs research and $2 billion on cardiovascular research, but far less on Alzheimer’s research, while related deaths increase.
What Are the Underlying Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease?
It’s often said that the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease are unknown, but there are numerous theories. The accumulating research that suggests Alzheimer’s disease may have an infectious component is becoming too plentiful to ignore. In addition to viruses, bacteria and fungus, an infectious protein called TDP-43, which behaves like infectious proteins known as prions, has also been linked to the disease.
Research presented at the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) also revealed Alzheimer’s patients with TDP-43 were 10 times more likely to have been cognitively impaired at death than those without.
Mounting research also suggests Alzheimer’s disease is intricately connected to insulin resistance; even mild elevation of blood sugar is associated with an elevated risk for dementia. Diabetes and heart disease also elevate your risk, as all three conditions are rooted in insulin resistance.
Arterial stiffness (atherosclerosis) is even associated with a hallmark process of Alzheimer’s, namely the buildup of beta-amyloid plaque in your brain.
From his research, Dr. David Perlmutter, author of “Grain Brain” and “Brain Maker,” has concluded that Alzheimer’s disease is primarily predicated on lifestyle choices and, in a nutshell, anything that promotes insulin resistance, like a processed food diet, will ultimately also raise your risk of Alzheimer’s.
Is Alzheimer’s Disease Preventable?
It’s also often said that Alzheimer’s disease cannot be prevented, but there has been intriguing research that suggests there are certain factors you can control to help reduce your risk.
For instance, seniors with severe vitamin D deficiency may raise their risk for dementia by 125 percent, and vitamin D deficiency is associated with a substantially increased risk of all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Sufficient vitamin D (50 to 70 nanograms/milliliter) is imperative for overall health, and likely, for brain health as well.
Exercise can also reduce your risk of the disease as well as help with treatment. In one study, patients diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s who participated in a four-month-long supervised exercise program had significantly fewer neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with the disease than the control group that did not exercise.