“And the costs are now completely out of control,” added Fargo, with the total annual cost for Alzheimer’s and dementia care in excess of a quarter trillion dollars.
Another highlighted concern: the “especially burdensome” ordeal Alzheimer’s caregivers experience while attending to the needs of loved ones as the patient suffers across-the-board mental and physical decline.
In 2016, more than 15 million Alzheimer’s caregivers provided just over 18 billion hours of unpaid care, valued at $230 billion.
And those caregivers suffer their own health consequences: More than a third (35 percent) report their health has worsened since assuming caregiver duties, compared with 19 percent of caregivers for older people without dementia. Depression and anxiety also plague dementia caregivers more often, the report found.
Still, the report was not entirely bleak, spotlighting growing efforts to identify telltale signs of developing disease.
The goal is to hone in on neurological signs — including changes in brain size, shifts in spinal fluid content, and/or the growth of nerve plaques in the brain — that could allow rapid detection of pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s.
“It’s a window into the future,” Fargo said. “If you ask where Alzheimer’s disease research is headed, that’s where it’s headed.”
“We believe that in the coming years we’ll have tests that you can do in the doctor’s office that will let you know your risk for Alzheimer’s,” he noted. And that, he suggested, “could open the door for prevention.”
Fargo noted that, even in the absence of effective treatments or a cure, early diagnosis would be a boon for research and would give patients a head start on planning for their future.
Yet, Porsteinsson suggested that the future of these telltale signs, known as biomarkers, remains unclear.
“Biomarkers are particularly important when it comes to research and development of future potential treatments,” he said.
On the other hand, he stressed that “the utility of biomarkers in current care is intensely debated.
“The biomarkers are expensive,” Porsteinsson noted. “And it is a question how much a positive or negative finding will change approach to care.
“Having said that,” he added, “it often matters greatly to patients and their families to know exactly what they have and what to expect.”