More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and 500,000 of those are Floridians. Alzheimer’s is currently the sixth leading cause of death, and of the top 10 leading causes. This degenerative disease that destroys the brain by killing nerve cells and tissues until all functions are affected is the only one that cannot be prevented, slowed or cured.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans with the disease are women according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Some 13 million women are suffering or caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. We need to wake up to the idea that not only is Alzheimer’s a public health crisis, but also a woman’s issue.
A woman’s estimated lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer’s is one in six compared to one in 11 for breast cancer. And, at the age of 65, women without Alzheimer’s have more than a one in six chance of developing the disease compared with a one in 11 chance for men. Scientists are starting to question why this trend is occurring and rejecting the conclusion that it is because women have a longer life expectancy.
Recently, the Alzheimer’s Association brought together 15 leading scientists to identify what is known about women’s risk. Maria Carrillo, the chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said in a Seattle Times article that the association plans to begin funding research to address some of the gaps brought to light by these scientists and help figure out why woman are more affected.
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With movies such as Still Alice and the Glen Campbell documentary I’ll Be Me, there has been an increase in public awareness for Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately that is not enough. We need to do more to educate our population, not only about this disease but the toll it has on the families and especially the toll it has on women. We must communicate with our elected officials and urge them to support an increase in federal funding. We also need to push them to pass comprehensive care planning legislation to address the current gaps in the system.
As a champion of women’s rights, I want to thank three South Florida members of Congress for co-sponsoring the HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act: Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Frederica Wilson. These three influential women all understand the demands and everyday struggles that caregivers go through. Eleven percent of women are likely to quit their job in order to properly care for a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. The proposed law would make Medicare provide comprehensive care planning for those recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
One of the major hurdles relating to Alzheimer’s is the inability to receive a timely and accurate diagnosis. Only 45 percent of caregivers say their loved one received a proper diagnosis. Compare this to the 90 percent of cancer and heart disease sufferers who received a proper diagnosis. Comprehensive care planning would also ensure the diagnosis is properly documented on all medical records, so all of the patients’ physicians are aware of the diagnosis.
Finally, the act would ensure that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would report to Congress on any barriers beneficiaries face.
I am optimistic about the future. Congress is finally recognizing the toll Alzheimer’s is having on our country. Recent actions such as approving $300 and $350 million in House and Senate funding, respectively, for additional research and the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act in the House prove that there is hope.
In South Florida, we are fortunate to have a delegation in Congress that is passionate about finding a cure.
We are at a turning point in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Every 67 seconds someone is diagnosed with the disease. With our baby boomer generation aging, we must act now. Women are at the epicenter of the Alzheimer’s epidemic. We as a community need to educate ourselves and make sure we are aware of this fatal disease because a woman’s brain is her most valuable asset.
Jennifer Braisted is advocacy coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association Southeast Florida Chapter.