Rep. Annie Kuster: To avoid cataclysm, we must invest in Alzheimer’s research

  • The McLane family is shown at a wedding in Concord in 1962. Pictured are (back row from left) Donald, Robin, Susan and Malcolm, and (front row) Annie, Debbie and Alan. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 4/20/2018 12:15:01 AM

New Hampshire, perhaps more than almost any other state, needs to prepare for the devastation that Alzheimer’s disease poses for our families, our health care facilities and our communities.

After caring for my late mother, Susan McLane, as she struggled with Alzheimer’s, I know all too well the challenges of this disease. Its physical toll is matched only by the emotional and financial toll that Alzheimer’s takes on individuals suffering from the disease and their loved ones.

Our state has the third oldest population in the country and among the highest costs in the nation for assisted living. This adds up to a perfect storm of burdensome financial costs, a need for new home health aides and lost work hours for family members caring for loved ones.

More than 20,000 people aged 65 and older live with Alzheimer’s in New Hampshire, according to a state plan developed by the Health and Human Services and Elder Affairs Joint Committee of the New Hampshire State Legislature. The plan also asserts that that number is expected to increase 37 percent by 2025. This creates terrible pain for those who can no longer care for themselves and who forget their loved ones, and also generates staggering costs for caregivers and the state.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that care for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias cost more than $259 billion in 2017. Increasingly, families are opting for ways to have a loved one remain at home, which often requires a serious investment to cover the cost of home health care professionals. Further complicating care at home is the simple fact that women are the predominant caregivers – and women suffer from Alzheimer’s at a higher rate than men. Today, more than two-thirds of those afflicted with the disease are women.

For those who do opt for a senior living facility, New Hampshire presents cost challenges. A state-by-state comparison shows the national average for senior living is $3,750 a month, according to the American Elder Care Research Organization. New Hampshire’s average cost is $4,850, and care designed specifically for Alzheimer’s patients can cost an additional $900 or more a month.

Currently there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but recent developments offer some hope. There is groundbreaking work being done to pave the way for new research advances. Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi and Dr. Doo Yeon Kim, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital researchers, have replicated the pathology of Alzheimer’s in brain cell neurons in a petri dish. For the first time, scientists can quickly observe what happens as the disease spreads to healthy brain tissue.

Perhaps the best chance we have of avoiding the tidal wave of Alzheimer’s illness and cost is to increase funding for research to identify effective treatments. A significant reason for optimism about finding a drug or therapy comes from recent developments in the laboratory. Five years ago, the research community did not have the tools to efficiently test potential drugs on the disease. It was a time-consuming process using mice and then waiting to see if the drug being tested had some effect.

Right now, researchers can mimic a brain under attack from the development of protein plaque bundles, abnormal tau tangles and inflammation that characterize Alzheimer’s. They can test varying drugs and drug combinations to see, in real time, what can work against the disease’s growth.

But there is still more that needs to be done, especially when it comes to federal funding for research. In 2017, the National Institutes of Health allocated $1.4 billion in funding for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, but more is needed to find a way to effectively slow or prevent the disease. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the numbers continue to increase. I was pleased that the recent omnibus spending bill I joined my colleagues in Congress to pass included $37.1 billion in funding for the NIH, $3 billion more than fiscal year 2017. I’ve requested that the NIH increase its funding for Alzheimer’s disease to $2.23 billion for fiscal year 2019.

I’ve also pushed for legislative solutions to support those struggling with the disease by boosting resources for home caregivers and improving Medicare beneficiaries’ access to Alzheimer’s screening and prevention services.

If we are to avoid a cataclysm that would rock New Hampshire families and New Hampshire’s budget, we need to support continued NIH funding that allows us to move ever closer to prevention and a cure.

(Rep. Annie Kuster represents New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District.)

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