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Dementia affects more than those diagnosed | Timi Gustafson
One of the most feared health problems the aging Baby Boomer generation will face is dementia. And it won’t just affect those suffering from mental decline but also those who care for them and society at large, at least in financial terms.
A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine predicts that healthcare costs in connection with age-related dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, will soon surpass almost all other medical expenses, including for heart disease and cancer, two of today’s leading causes of death.
The study, which was conducted by economists at the RAND Corporation and sponsored by the federal government, found that expenditures for dementia patients will at least double by 2040 with 3.8 million Americans age 71 and older diagnosed with some form of age-related cognitive decline. In another generation, the researchers say, there will be over nine million.
Direct healthcare costs, including nursing home care, per dementia patient run currently between $41,000 and $56,000 a year. Total expenses in the United States in 2010, the year the study collected its data, ranged from $159 billion to 215 billion. It is projected that these numbers will increase to well over $500 billion annually by mid-century.
Not included in these calculations are the costs of what is considered informal care, which is usually provided by family members and voluntary caregivers. It is hard to put a price tag on their efforts, but the study estimates a total of $50 billion to $106 billion spent per year.
“The long-term care costs associated with people with dementia are particularly high because of the nature of the disease,” said Donald Moulds, assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, in an interview with the New York Times. “People eventually become incapable of caring for themselves, and then in the vast majority of cases, their loved ones become incapable of caring for them.”
So far, there is no cure or effective treatment for dementia. However, there are numerous studies suggesting that certain preventive measures may be helpful, at least in terms of delaying or slowing the debilitating effects.
For instance, certain health and lifestyle factors associated with the risk of Alzheimer’s disease can be controlled, according to the National Institutes of Health. Scientists are exploring whether prevention strategies like physical exercise, diet and intellectual stimulation can counteract deterioration. Controlling body weight and blood pressure are among the most common recommendations experts give in this regard. Also, keeping the brain engaged by constant learning and participating in a lively social environment are thought to be helpful.
Unfortunately, most of this is guesswork. The truth is that we don’t know why dementia is so dramatically on the rise. Is the reason that we live longer, that we eat the wrong foods, that we exercise too little, that we watch too much TV, that we find ourselves increasingly isolated as we grow older – all of the above and more? We don’t know.
Still, we cannot sit idly and ignore the facts. In any case, adherence to a healthy lifestyle will do no harm.
We may not find out the specific causes, if there are any, and there may not be an effective treatment available for the foreseeable future.
But in the meantime, we can and should do everything in our power to stay as healthy and active as possible for as long as we can. A good way of going about that is to satisfy all our health needs in every aspect by eating right, exercising regularly, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, nursing relationships, reading books, learning foreign languages and computer programs and so forth.
Not one but all of these together make for what I have called the pillars of our wellbeing. Until there are better options, that’s all we can do, and that’s not nothing.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”