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U.S. May Spend More on Dementia Care Than Cancer

Annual bill now tops $200 billion, largely for long-term care, researchers say

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, April 3 (HealthDay News) -- The cost of caring for Americans with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia may now be as high as $215 billion a year -- more than the cost of caring for heart disease or cancer, a new study finds.

And that number is expected to escalate as the elderly population grows.

In 2010, the United States spent somewhere between $157 billion and $215 billion on dementia care, researchers reported in the April 4 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. That includes direct medical expenses and the costs of caring for people with dementia -- both professional care and the "informal" care that families provide.

Dementia is a progressive deterioration in memory, thinking ability, judgment and other vital brain functions.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, and a recent study estimated that with the aging baby boom generation, the number of Americans with Alzheimer's could triple by 2050, to nearly 14 million.

The new study tried to take a "comprehensive look" at the financial impact -- including the costs to family caregivers, said lead researcher Michael Hurd, a senior principal researcher at the nonprofit research institute RAND.

"It's not a happy situation," Hurd said. "A lot of the costs fall on families, and right now, there's no solution in sight."

The researchers based their estimates on a government study of older Americans, plus Medicare records and other data sources. Of the billions spent on dementia in 2010, only a small portion went to medical treatments, the study found.

Instead, long-term care -- either nursing homes, or home care provided by professionals or family members -- was the big expense, accounting for up to 84 percent of the total.

Per person, the costs ranged from about $41,700 to $56,300, depending on how the researchers calculated the cost of family caregiving. In the first case, they considered only family members' lost wages; in the second, they gave family members' time the same value as formal paid care.

As for who paid, Medicare foot the bill for $11 billion out of the up to $215 billion in total expenses, Hurd's team said.

It's a small share because Medicare does not usually cover nursing home or other long-term care. Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor, will cover it -- but only after certain patient assets have been spent down.

"A large part of the burden is borne by families," said Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the U.S. National Institute on Aging, which funded the study.

Hodes noted that things could get tougher in the years to come. The younger baby boomers had fewer children compared with past generations -- so along with the rise in the number of elderly adults with dementia, there will be fewer family members to care for them.

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