Journal Record Staff Reporter
Alzheimer's disease causes great emotional cost to its victims and their families, but the dollar amount is equally staggering and it's growing steadily.
Dr. Roger A. Brumback, who does research on Alzheimer's disease at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, said some 4.5 million Americans currently suffer from the disease. That's expected to grow to 6 million by 2000 and to a whopping 10 million people in 2030, he said.
Brumback, who is director of the Diagnostic Center for Alzheimer's Disease and Neuropathology Laboratory, estimated 20,000 victims of the disease live in Oklahoma. The number will sharply increase during the next 30 to 40 years, he said.
Now for the staggering part: each victim of Alzheimer's disease requires an expenditure of at least $25,000 per year for health care, including specialized medical care, nursing homes and social services. Brumback said annual expenses for the disease are more than $100 billion in the United States and about $500 million in Oklahoma.
"Alzheimer's disease victims live an average of seven years after the onset of the disease," he said. Multiplied by $25,000, that's a minimum health care cost of $175,000.
Put another way, a hypothetical person on a minimum wage of $10,000 per year would be spending 17 years' worth of pay to cover expenses caused by the dreaded disease, Brumback said. And health insurance doesn't cover Alzheimer's.
"For most situations, you deplete every dollar a person has until he goes on welfare, goes on Medicaid, and Medicaid doesn't pay nursing homes enough for care, so people drift to substandard nursing homes and die more quickly," he said.
Many people either have relatives or acquaintances who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, so at least the name's familiar. Precisely what happens is, "the nerve cells in the brain are deteriorating and dying. You start losing them, and soon you don't have the number you need to think," Brumback said. "We don't know why the nerve cells are dying, and that's the challenge."
Research physicians are seeking to discover what's killing the nerve cells and how to prevent it from happening.
"Despite everything that's written in the papers, we really don't understand it," he said. "Alzheimer's disease receives a disproportionately small amount of research dollars compared to other current priorities, and this is one of the major diseases in this country at this time."
Because Alzheimer's disease touches so many people, it is a popular project for research scientists, Brumback said. It has resulted in some findings being unduly hyped in publications in the hope of garnering research grants, he said. "Really, we haven't achieved that much over the past few years."
In the mid-19th century, it was politically popular to view people over 65 as "senile," which could be the reason for that age being a benchmark retirement age, Brumback said. But not all people above that age are truly demented _ in fact, a great many are normal.
A scientist named Alzheimer, for whom the disease is named, studied a 50-year-old woman who experienced a progressive loss of her intellectual functions over three years. He examined her brain tissue under a microscope, and found plaques and tangles, which are now known to be characteristics of the disease, Brumback said.
"She was senile before her time. They thought it was premature aging," he said. "Subsequently, people called it `Alzheimer's disease.' "
So, up to the 1970s, Alzheimer's was considered to be a rare form of premature aging of the brain, and everybody was considered to be senile when they reached age 65, Brumback said. …