I was excited to share with you details of the new raised garden beds we planted over the weekend, all the vegetables that are now being carefully watered and watched, and the joy of my parents when they realized one of their favorites, cauliflower, is among the dozens of cool season vegetables now taking root. But as a consummate multi-tasker, I used a break to read an article my husband recommended in Bloomberg Businessweek by Peter Coy: “Alzheimer’s: The Costliest Killer.” We still finished up the garden, but my desire to share more about our leafy two inch starters has been thwarted because of the images I can’t shake off after reading, “A brain destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease looks like a shrunken, rotting cauliflower.”
Coy’s piece highlights the dreadfully low amount of research funds dedicated to Alzheimer’s, as he discusses a new RAND Corporation study released this month that finds “treating dementia of all kinds costs more than heart disease or cancer, more than 150-billion dollars a year in the US, including the value of informal care.” That informal care is what millions of caregivers are doing right now, as we speak.
The reason these numbers are so disheartening are because they don’t come from advocacy groups…this is an academic research effort outlining what we are all in store for as the cost of caring for people with dementia skyrockets. The RAND study finds 15 percent of people over the age of 71, some 3.8 million people, have dementia. And by 2040, that number will hit more than 9 million people. This hearkens to last year’s prediction by the World Health Organization that Alzheimer’s is a ‘public health priority.’
Generally speaking, I fall in the ‘cup half full to overflowing’ way of looking at life. I’m of the mind that how I view my world has a great deal of influence in how my world actually unfolds. Certainly there are things out of my control, but a positive, healthy attitude goes a very long way. That’s why I want to do as much together with my father, in the hopes that he has more ‘bright’ days than any others.
Yet as the cold, hard numbers stare me in the face…I also want to have my eyes open to the reality that there will be no medical breakthroughs unless lawmakers and researchers decide to make Alzheimer’s a priority. Having lived so much of my life in San Francisco, I can’t help thinking of Alzheimer’s as the new AIDS. I watched as too many good friends lost their lives battling HIV/AIDS, because at that time, there were no treatments that could save them. Granted, there is absolutely NO link between these diseases, except in the way they seem to be viewed from the outside. In the ‘80s, getting attention and funding for AIDS research seemed insurmountable were it not for the tireless work of advocacy groups and finally a breakthrough with lawmakers and researchers that totally changed how AIDS is treated and managed in the US and around the world. In my opinion, the same has to happen with Alzheimer’s, instead of leaving it pushed to the back burner.
A Home Instead Senior Care/Marist Poll, cited in Coy’s article, finds Alzheimer’s as the disease 44% of Americans named as being most afraid of having…that’s as many as cancer and stroke combined. Am I concerned? Absolutely. As far as we know, Alzheimer’s is 100% fatal. Still, there are rays of hope even at this ‘back burner’ stage, and there’s no doubt this RAND study will push the conversation out in front, where it must be for change to occur.
While I won’t be able to erase the image of what my father’s brain looks like in my mind, we will harvest all our vegetables, even the cauliflower, with a sense of delight that what we planted took root and grew with our care. And it is my hope that as we continue to plant and sow gardens for years to come, our children and future generations will not continue to be most afraid of having Alzheimer’s.
I am not alone. Alzheimer’s is a public health crisis requiring urgent global attention and action. The global cost of Alzheimer’s and dementia consumes one percent of the global Gross Domestic Product.