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Alzheimer's and the "Silver Tsunami:" Is America Ready?

Pamela Brown
Pamela Brown (National Press Foundation)

(CBS) Pamela Brown walks into the room and you get the vague sense you've seen that face, with its chiseled cheekbones, before. It's unexpected as she confesses to a pain millions of families across the country are similarly forced to endure: Alzheimer's.

Brown's grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's when she was 75. In the two years before she died, "Grammy" went from a smart, sassy Texan to an angry woman who kicked her children and perceived them as enemies. Once beautiful and well-groomed, Grammy now wore stained shirts and didn't brush her teeth. Most confusing for Brown, Grammy still had moments of lucidity. But ultimately, "she didn't even know me," says Brown, her shoulders slumped. By then it was too late to say, "I love you."

Brown is a newscaster in Washington, DC. Her mother is Phyllis George, a former Miss America and sportscaster. Her father is former Kentucky governor John Brown. Yet even with their means - and their connections - Alzheimer's proved to be the ultimate humiliation and heartbreak.

The rest of us may be equally unprepared to cope with a disease that has no clear cause, no cure, no treatments capable of restoring memory loss, and a care-giving burden the nation is ill-equipped to meet.

Mother and daughter have both become Alzheimer's activists. Brown spoke on behalf of the Alzheimer's Association at a recent program sponsored by the National Press Foundation for journalists trying to stay ahead of this story.

The numbers are terrifying: 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer's now, a number that is expected to balloon to 16 million by 2050.

Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging, and yet getting old is the biggest risk factor. Our country is graying. Think of this as you make your New Year's toast: starting at 12:00 a.m. Jan. 1, when Kathy Casey-Kirschling, the country's very first baby boomer (born in Philly Jan. 1, 1946) turns 65, she'll set off the "silver tsunami," - 10,000 Americans a day will be turning 65 right along with her. The crisis deepens.

Alzheimer's is already the country's fastest-growing disease, and an Alzheimer's patient costs the system triple that of patients being treated for other ailments. Experts warn it has the potential to bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid within a matter of years. This may surprise many: Medicare doesn't pay for nursing home care. Even patients with substantial savings may see their personal savings wiped out should they, or a loved one, require 24/7 care.

Alzheimer's Care

What the country needs is a cure. Some argue that drugs approved for the treatment of Alzheimer's, such as Aricept and Namenda, do relieve symptoms. But others insist that after two years, patients are right back where they would have been without drugs. And no one would claim that any of the approved Alzheimer's drugs actually stop the disease.

All of which begs the question: can Alzheimer's be prevented? Lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, following the Mediterranean diet, exercising, taking fish oil capsules, playing brain games, staying socially connected, dancing, touch - none has been proven to delay the onset of Alzheimer's. Resveratrol - the stuff in red wine - is being tested in a government study (you'd need to drink two and a half bottles a day to get the benefit - not advised).

It seems that bad habits in middle age, not old age itself, may play a larger role in the development of this devastating disease. More drugs are in phase-III trials, which is good. But many work on a theory that amyloid plaques in the brain are the cause of memory loss, which hasn't yet been proven.

To get a grip on the disease, Alzheimer's researchers need money. Cancer research nets $6 billion a year, Alzheimer's less than $470 million. Proposed legislation aims to add $2 billion a year to Alzheimer's funding, but support in the next cash-strapped Congress is a question mark.

Embarrassingly, the US is one of the few rich nations that lacks a national strategy to battle Alzheimer's. (Australia, England, France and South Korea do.) Legislation called the National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA) is pending. It doesn't including a penny of funding, but it does put the Secretary of Health and Human Services in charge of creating a strategic plan. It's likely to become law before Christmas - perhaps a perfect time for families to begin making their own plans, and broach that conversation: "Is it time for Grandpa to hand over the keys?"

Is your family touched by Alzheimer's? How are you coping?

We'd like to hear from you.

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