The Obama administration is developing the first National Alzheimer's Plan to find better treatments for the disease and offer better day-to-day care for those afflicted.
A newly released draft of the overall goals for that plan sets the 2025 deadline, but doesn't provide details of how to fund the necessary research to meet that target date. Today's treatments only temporarily ease some dementia symptoms, and work to find better ones has been frustratingly slow.
A committee of Alzheimer's experts began a two-day meeting Tuesday to help advise the government on how the eventual plan, expected by spring, could meet those goals.
Families have been "reminding us of the enormity of our task, perhaps most important the meaningfulness of it," said Dr. Ron Petersen, an Alzheimer's specialist at the Mayo Clinic, who chairs the committee.
But hanging over the meeting is the reality of a budget crunch. It's not clear how much money the federal government will be able to devote to Alzheimer's, and states have seen their Alzheimer's budgets cut.
"We're not going to fix this without substantial resources," said David Hoffman of the New York State Department of Health, who oversees that state's Alzheimer's programs. "In New York, we're hanging on by our nails."
An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's or similar dementias. It's the sixth-leading killer, and is steadily growing as the population rapidly ages. By 2050, 13 million to 16 million Americans are projected to have Alzheimer's, costing $1 trillion in medical and nursing home expenditures.
The national plan is supposed to tackle both the medical and social aspects of dementia, and advocacy groups had urged that it set a deadline for progress.
Among the draft's other goals:
—Improve timely diagnosis. A recent report found as many as half of today's Alzheimer's sufferers haven't been formally diagnosed, in part because of stigma and the belief that nothing can be done. Symptomatic treatment aside, a diagnosis lets families plan, and catching the disease earlier would be crucial if scientists ever found ways to slow the disease's progress.
To do that, the draft suggests starting with a national public awareness campaign so more people know the early warning signs of dementia — and to include memory assessment tools in the annual Medicare wellness visit.
—Improve support and training for families so they know what resources are available for patients and what to expect as dementia worsens.
A caregiver-training program in New York has shown that families taught how to handle common dementia problems, and given support, are able to keep their loved ones at home for longer. Hoffman said such training programs are far cheaper than nursing homes.
Alzheimer's sufferers gradually lose the ability to do the simplest activities of daily life and can survive that way for a decade or more. In meetings around the country last summer and fall, families urged federal health officials to make sure the national plan addresses how to help patients live their last years at home without ruining their caregivers' own health and finances.