It’s amazing how shortsighted we can be. The same week that the world marked the five-year anniversary of the financial collapse, tens of millions of families around the globe quietly celebrated World Alzheimer’s Day with little to no acknowledgement from the media or world leaders.
This is not only ironic, it’s alarming. Alzheimer’s is a global health crisis unfolding before our eyes that poses a grave and long-term threat to international economic health.
Already, the annual global cost of Alzheimer’s and dementia is a staggering $604 billion — a figure greater than the GDP of all but 20 nations and representing 1 percent of total global economic output. What’s worse, by mid-century, the cases of Alzheimer’s are projected to triple, causing costs to skyrocket and shake the financial stability of entire nations, including the United States.
Beyond the cost of care — the majority of which taxpayers shoulder — is the demand on families to pull back from the workforce to care for their loved ones. That produces an economic impact on workforce productivity, which will further exacerbate the crisis by removing more and more people from the labor market in the coming years. It will also impact the health of family caregivers who often bear the brunt of the disease and experience higher rates of medical complications as a result.
Despite the fact that we’ve known this crisis was coming for years, we’ve made little headway in addressing it. Part of the challenge is that the cause of Alzheimer’s is only partially understood. While many have had the first-hand experience of watching a loved-one suffer from this inexorable disease, the scientific community has pursued a strategy centered on only a small number of potential targets for their treatments.
That is understandable, perhaps, because of the constrained public investment in this disease. But that limitation on funding means that the wider range of insights into the way this disease works are left out of the mainstream funding conversation. Frustratingly, this dearth of funding has continued for years while the growth in public funding for the care and support of those with the disease has grown by leaps and bounds, putting increasing pressure on national budgets and balance sheets.
Together, all of this makes for what Dr. Peter Piot, who headed the United Nation’s fight against HIV/AIDS, recently called the 21st century’s “ticking time bomb.” However, this bomb can be diffused through the likes of an international plan similar to the one we saw in the fight against HIV/AIDS. And fortunately, we may soon see such a plan begin to take shape.
Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the UK would use its presidency of the G8 to lead the first-ever international response to fight Alzheimer’s. Under Cameron’s leadership, the UK will host a Global Dementia Summit in December, assembling the international community to begin building the framework that will guide a global attack on Alzheimer’s.
In order to stop Alzheimer’s by 2025 — a landmark goal set by the United States two-years ago — it is critical that this plan include commitments from both governments and industry. Given the size of the endeavor, the plan must also provide clarity about the roles to be played and coordinated by public and private stakeholders.
Government, for example, must fund basic research, foster an innovation-friendly environment and transform health care systems built for acute care into more integrated health and social support systems to support chronic care needs. And industry must put patients first and adopt an innovative agenda that includes faster learning through new mechanisms for sharing data, as well as a new global clinical trial infrastructure that speeds up sluggish trial processes. Moreover, industry must place a high priority on scientific advances such as biomarkers that predict those at risk for the disease before symptoms appear, much like cholesterol does for heart disease.
Advancing this agenda would be a true game-changer in the history of Alzheimer’s, but no country can do it alone. It will take an initiative like that proposed by the G8 to make it happen.
Cameron has taken a bold step to leverage the G8 to beat Alzheimer’s disease. If he uses the G8’s influence to spur public and private leadership and engagement, then we may one day look back at the London Summit in December as the watershed moment in the fight against Alzheimer’s, and know that we avoided what would have surely been the next great crisis of our generation.
George Vradenburg is the founder of USAgainstAlzheimer’s and the convener of the Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer’s Disease.