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Echo Press Editorial: Alzheimer’s: misunderstood and underreported

How much do you know about Alzheimer’s disease? Not enough. Or the information you think you know may be wrong.

The Alzheimer’s Association recently released a report that noted that although the disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., it is still widely misunderstood and underreported. Nearly a quarter of both men and women, for instance, agree with the mistaken belief that Alzheimer’s must run in their family for them to be at risk.

There’s also a lot of misunderstanding about how the disease affects women.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s “2014 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures” report, a woman’s estimated lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer’s at age 65 is 1 in 6, compared with nearly 1 in 11 for a man. As real a concern as breast cancer is to women’s health, women in their 60s are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s over the rest of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer.

Adding to women’s Alzheimer’s burden, there are 2.5 times as many women than men providing intensive “on-duty” care 24 hours for someone living with Alzheimer’s disease. Among caregivers who feel isolated, women are much more likely than men to link isolation with feeling depressed (17 percent of women vs. 2 percent of men).

The strain of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is also felt in the workplace. Among caregivers who have been employed while they were also caregiving:

• 20 percent of women vs. 3 percent of men went from working full-time to working part-time while acting as a caregiver.

• 18 percent of women vs. 11 percent of men took a leave of absence.

• 11 percent of women vs. 5 percent of men gave up work entirely.

• 10 percent of women vs. 5 percent of men lost job benefits.

Creating a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease isn’t just a lofty, “feel good” goal. There’s a lot at stake here.

There are more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, including 88,000 here in Minnesota aged 65 and older.

Nationwide, the total cost of caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is projected to reach $214 billion this year. The cost to Medicare and Medicaid of caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias will reach a combined $150 billion with Medicare spending nearly $1 in every $5 on people with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

The Alzheimer’s Association points out that these numbers are set to soar as the baby boomers continue to enter the age of greatest risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Unless something is done to change the course of the disease, there could be as many as 16 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s in 2050, at a cost of $1.2 trillion (in current dollars) to the nation.

Those numbers should spur action to increase awareness of Alzheimer’s staggering financial and human toll, and to adequately fund research to improve treatment.