Few medical maladies are as cruel as Alzheimer’s disease. It slowly robs people of memories, personality, basic functionality – of their sense of self. Those who have witnessed the effects of the disease up close can speak to the resulting feelings of heartbreak and helplessness.
Beyond the individual stories of devastation, Alzheimer’s poses a broader risk for all Rhode Islanders and for the nation as a whole. On Aug. 19, during a “Coffee with Congress” gathering at the Warwick Central Public Library, local leaders and advocates sought to raise the alarm.
“Alzheimer’s disease poses and increasingly dire threat to our nation’s future,” Donna McGowan, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Rhode Island, told attendees during the “Coffee with Congress” event. “Unless we move quickly to address the disease and find better treatments … Alzheimer’s will increasingly overwhelm our health care system.”
The statistics paint a stark picture. According to the association, more than 23,000 Rhode Islanders are currently living with Alzheimer’s. It is the fifth-leading cause of death in the Ocean State.
Nationally, an estimated 5 million to 8 million people have Alzheimer’s. That figure is expected to rise to as many as 16 million by 2050 – and with it, annual costs related to the disease are expected to grow from nearly $300 million to more than $1 trillion.
Like the U.S. as a whole, Rhode Island’s population is quickly growing older. By 2040, it is estimated the number of Ocean State residents age 60 and older will increase significantly, from more than 217,000 to roughly 264,000.
During Monday’s event, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed said it well when he described the potential for Alzheimer’s to bring about a “personal and economic disaster” for the state and the nation in the years ahead.
So what can be done?
On an individual level, the Alzheimer’s Association urges seniors to receive regular cognitive assessments. Early detection and diagnosis can make a real difference in terms of treatment.
The association also urges members of the community to know the 10 early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, from memory loss that disrupts daily life to changes in mood or personality. A full list can be found on the association’s website, alz.org.
On a broader scale, the association has made the case for federal legislative action. Its priorities include increasing funding for research through the National Institutes of Health; providing clinicians with additional education and resources through the HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act; increasing access to vital programs through the Younger Onset Alzheimer’s Disease Act; and supporting enhanced end-of-life care through the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act.
As Lt. Gov. Dan McKee outlined during the “Coffee with Congress” event, steps are also being taken at the state level to confront Alzheimer’s and the challenges it poses. Communities are getting involved, too, as seen through the Dementia Friendly Community initiative underway in Cranston.
We applaud our elected leaders for working with the Alzheimer’s Association on this vital issue, and we thank the advocates and individuals who spoke about their work and shared their stories during “Coffee with Congress.”
Alzheimer’s should rightly be regarded as a public health priority. The stakes are too high not to act, and our future – individually and collectively – depends on finding effective ways to fight back.