Health & Fitness

The caregiving costs of Alzheimer’s could bankrupt a big safety net

Beneficiaries with Alzheimer’s cost Medicare three times as much as those without the degenerative brain disease.
Beneficiaries with Alzheimer’s cost Medicare three times as much as those without the degenerative brain disease. File

While Washington discusses potential cuts to Medicare, a new report says that the growing number of Alzheimer’s patients could bankrupt the national insurance program that provides healthcare to more than 55 million Americans.

As the baby boomer generation enters the high-risk years for the degenerative brain disease, the cost of care has already reached $259 billion, according to the report by the Alzheimer’s Association.

Of that $259 billion that goes to total healthcare and long-term care payments for Alzheimer’s and other dementias, Medicare and Medicaid pay for about two-thirds, or $175 billion. Healthcare expenses for Alzheimer’s and other dementias cost Medicare triple what it costs the program for someone without the disease — $23,487 a year compared to $7,223. These expenses are expected to continue spiraling upward as the population ages.

"The greatest risk factors for late-onset Alzheimer’s are older age, having a family history of Alzheimer’s, and carrying the APOE-e4 gene," the report states. "Age is the greatest of these three risk factors, with the vast majority of people with Alzheimer’s dementia being age 65 or older."

What’s more, Alzheimer’s — both the cause and a cure — remain a mystery to scientists. No treatment has been found to prevent it or to treat it. The Alzheimer’s Association has long advocated a need to more research funding, but monies in the area still lag many other disease.

In 2015, the U.S. government spent $3 billion to HIV/AIDS and $5 billion to cancer research, yet Alzheimer’s research received less than $600 million. Other highlights from the report:

▪  5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s and most are over 65 years old.

▪  One in 10 people age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s dementia. But the percentage of people with Alzheimer’s increases markedly with age: 3 percent of people age 65-74, 17 percent of people age 75-84, and 32 percent of people age 85 and older have Alzheimer’s.

▪  In Florida, the number of Alzheimer’s patients is expected to grow 38.5 percent between 2017 and 2025. Only Alaska, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina and Utah are expected to have a higher rate of growth.

▪  About 454,000 new cases of Alzheimer’s were diagnosed in 2010. By 2050, 959,000 are expected to be diagnosed — a 110 percent increase. By 2050, too, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s is expected to nearly triple, from 5.3 million to a projected 13.8 million.

▪  More than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. These caregivers provided an estimated 18.2 billion hours of unpaid care in 2016, or an average of 21.9 hours of care per caregiver per week. The estimated economic value of care: $230.1 billion in 2016.