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Alzheimer's getting costlier, report finds

Daughters, other relatives carry most of the responsibility
Image: A doctor assists an elderly woman along a hospital corridor
The latest report on the most common cause of dementia, Alzheimer's, shows that 5.7 million Americans have the disease and it’s costing us $277 billion a year.Squaredpixels / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Alzheimer’s disease just keeps getting worse in the U.S. The latest report on the most common cause of dementia shows that 5.7 million Americans have the disease and it’s costing us $277 billion a year.

That doesn’t include the unpaid time and effort of the people, mostly women, who are caring for spouses, parents, siblings, and friends with dementia, the annual report from the Alzheimer’s Association shows.

“In 2017, 16 million Americans provided an estimated 18.4 billion hours of unpaid care in the form of physical, emotional and financial support – a contribution to the nation valued at $232.1 billion,” the Association says.

“The difficulties associated with providing this level of care are estimated to have resulted in $11.4 billion in additional healthcare costs for Alzheimer’s and other dementia caregivers in 2017.”

It is very expensive to take care of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. The Association estimates that it costs $341,000 on average for the health needs of someone with the disease from diagnosis to death. Families pay 70 percent of this out of pocket.

Two-thirds of those doing the work are women, the report finds, and 1/3 are daughters. Overall, 83 percent of all the care given to dementia patients is provided by relatives, friends or other unpaid people.

It’s hard work — more than 20 hours a week on average — and it can take a toll on the health of the caregiver. The report notes that Alzheimer’s caregivers have higher risk factors for heart disease and depression.

But earlier diagnosis can save time and money, the report says. While it may sound counterintuitive, diagnosing someone before they progress from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to Alzheimer’s can end up costing less.

“While current therapies do not prevent, halt or reverse Alzheimer’s disease, they can temporarily improve and prolong cognitive function in many individuals with Alzheimer's dementia,” the report reads.

“An early diagnosis also enables potential safety issues, such as problems with driving or wandering, to be addressed ahead of time.”

Not only can patients plan ahead while they still can, they can get and keep chronic medical conditions under control. Controlling heart disease, diabetes and other conditions early saves money in the long run.

Plus, starting to exercise, eating healthily and quitting smoking can slow progression of the disease.

“The sooner the diagnosis occurs, the sooner these costs can be managed and savings can begin,” said the Alzheimer Association’s Keith Fargo.

And it may not be Alzheimer’s. “When further testing shows reversible or treatable causes (for example, depression, obstructive sleep apnea or vitamin B12 deficiency) rather than Alzheimer’s disease, early diagnosis can lead to treatment and improvement of cognition and quality of life,” the report reads.