While disease awareness has become very popular in recent times – pink ribbons for cancer, red for AIDS, walks for many others – few diseases rise to the social and political consequence of Alzheimer’s. That’s not because of its human impact, which is horrendous, nor its emotional depressive drain on those whose loved ones are suffering. No, it is because Alzheimer’s is so perfectly aligned with aging that the longevity we achieved in the 20th century – adding over three decades to average life – could become a national nightmare.
Perhaps that is also why Alzheimer’s, was the topic of choice late last week at the Council on Foreign Relations where scholars of international politics, government policy makers and NGO leaders considered the impact from the recent Report on the Global Cost of the Disease. It is in fact the cost, which explodes with aging – 1 of 3 after 65 and 1 of 2 after 85 – that sets Alzheimer’s apart from all other diseases.
One of the authors of the report, Dr. Anders Wimo of The Karolinska Institute in Sweden, highlighted the data to the CFR experts: “The worldwide costs will exceed 1 percent of global GDP in 2010, at US$604 billion. If it were a country, it would be the world’s 18th largest economy. If it were a company, it would be the world’s largest by annual revenue exceeding Wal-Mart (US$414 billion) and Exxon Mobil (US$311 billion). The number of people affected will double by 2030, and more than triple by 2050. Prevalence explodes to over 115 million by midcentury and counting.”
Dr. Anders was joined by Harry Johns, CEO of America’s Alzheimer’s association, who underscored the stunning lack of research and funding support for Alzheimer’s in the U.S. National Institute of Health Funding in 2010 – dollars that go for basic research essential for innovations which will treat us – was $469 million, while AIDS got over $3 billion, heart and cardiovascular over $4 billion and cancer almost $6 billion. Not surprisingly the funding for research tracks the percentage change of those dying across America: while Alzheimer’s grew 50.6 percent, HIV fell by 22 percent, breast cancer by 3.1 percent and heart disease by 13.3 percent. The experts at CFR took the view that Alzheimer’s is a fiscal crisis, with policy implications that should be picked up in global Institutions like the G-20 and the UN to hold governments to account. And that’s why a health matter is one of profound interest among international relations experts.