Alzheimer’s disease is among the most expensive illnesses in the U.S. There’s no cure, no effective treatment and no easy fix for the skyrocketing financial cost of caring for an aging population.
Spending on care for people alive in the U.S. right now who will develop the affliction is projected to cost $47 trillion over the course of their lives, a report issued Tuesday by the Alzheimer’s Association found. The U.S. is projected to spend $277 billion on Alzheimer’s or other dementia care in 2018 alone, with an aging cohort of baby boomers pushing that number to $1.1 trillion by 2050.
Research so far has been stymied by clinical failures. By one count, at least 190 human trials of Alzheimer’s drugs have ended in failure. No company has successfully marketed a drug to treat it, though many big pharmaceutical companies, including Merck & Co. and Pfizer Inc., have tried. Biogen Inc., a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, saw its shares dive last month after it said it was expanding the number of participants in its trial for the drug aducanumab.
However, significant cost savings can be achieved, according to the new report, by the simple act of early diagnosis. Currently, individuals are typically diagnosed in the dementia stage, rather than when they have developed only mild cognitive impairment [MCI]. Identifying the disease early can allow it to be better managed, in part with existing drugs that treat its symptoms. In doing so, the study postulates, America could save $7.9 trillion over the lifetimes of everyone alive right now.
The Alzheimer’s Association commissioned researchers at Precision Health Economics to study the potential savings of obtaining an earlier diagnosis. It used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a “nationally representative sample of adults age 50 and older,” run by the University of Michigan and supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration.
The $7.9 trillion in savings was derived from a scenario in which all adults who develop Alzheimer’s receive an early diagnosis in the MCI stage. The cumulative cost in such a circumstance is projected at $39.2 trillion—far below the $47.1 trillion that would be spent under current diagnostic patterns.
“We know that there’s a spike in medical spending around the time of diagnosis,” said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s actually quite expensive to do things that way.”
“You can save a significant amount of money just through better early diagnosis,” he said.