By Dennis Thompson
MONDAY, July 20, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- The number of people with Alzheimer's disease is set to skyrocket in the United States due to the aging of the baby-boom generation, and the cost of caring for these patients will devour a large chunk of Medicare's budget, a new study suggests.
More than 28 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer's disease during the course of their lifetimes, the researchers estimated.
By 2050, all baby boomers will be older than 85 and half of those still alive will suffer from Alzheimer's disease, said lead author Lisa Alecxih, senior vice president of The Lewin Group and director of the Lewin Center for Aging and Disability Policy.
That's up from an estimated 1.2 percent prevalence of Alzheimer's among boomers in 2020, when most boomers will be in their 60s and early 70s, Alecxih said.
Improvements in medical science are allowing people to live longer, but a long life is the main risk factor for developing Alzheimer's disease, she said.
"The incidence of the disease increases as you grow older, as does the severity," Alecxih said.
That means that by 2040, more than twice as many baby boomers will have Alzheimer's disease (10.3 million) compared with the equivalent age group in 2015 (4.7 million), the researchers said.
The cost of caring for more than 10 million Alzheimer's patients will consume nearly 25 percent of Medicare spending in 2040, the study predicted.
Findings from the study are scheduled to be presented Monday at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference, in Washington, D.C. Findings presented at meetings are generally viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
As baby boomers with Alzheimer's live longer, they will begin to develop more severe forms of the disease and the cost of caring for them will go through the roof, said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer's Association.
"During the time they are living, they continue to degenerate," Fargo said. "Many people end up in long-term care or nursing homes, and require around-the-clock care for many years. This isn't like you get a heart attack and you pass away. You get this degenerative disease and it requires that you get care for many years."
In 2020, the projected Medicare costs of caring for baby boomers with Alzheimer's in the community will be about 2 percent of total Medicare spending, amounting to nearly $12 billion in 2014 dollars, the researchers estimated.
But by 2040, when the baby-boom generation is between 76 and 94 years old, projected Medicare costs increase to more than 24 percent of total Medicare spending, or about $328 billion in 2014 dollars, the new analysis said.
"I think the crisis that will occur as our population grows and ages is real, and although the numbers look like they possibly couldn't be true, they are," said Dr. David Knopman, a Mayo Clinic neurologist and vice-chair of the Alzheimer's Association Medical and Scientific Advisory Council. "In fact, they're pretty conservative."
To stem this tidal wave, more funding for Alzheimer's research is needed to prepare therapies and preventive measures that will reduce the number of baby boomers needing expensive around-the-clock care, Maria Carrillo, chief science officer for the Alzheimer's Association, said in an association news release.
A number of experimental therapies are in the research pipeline that have the potential to delay onset of Alzheimer's or possibly even prevent the disease, but the level of funding has hampered progress, she said.
"Public funding for this research is extremely limited compared to the magnitude of the problem," Carillo said. "If we're going to change the current trajectory of the disease, we need consistent and meaningful investments in research from the federal government to ensure a more robust pipeline."
According to an Alzheimer's Association report released earlier this year, a new treatment that delays onset could save $220 billion within the first five years of its introduction. It would also cut the number of people who have the disease in 2050 by 42 percent, from 13.5 million to 7.8 million, the report said.
Baby boomers may be able to help themselves too, Fargo added.
"There is good research now we're seeing that lifestyle changes may make a difference," he said. "It's never too late to stop smoking. It's never too late to become physically active, or lower your cholesterol, or better control your blood pressure. Although we're not certain this can prevent or delay Alzheimer's, it will have a positive effect on preserving your memory and ability to think."
Baby boomers also can aid scientific efforts by taking part in clinical trials for Alzheimer's, Fargo said.
"The folks in this baby-boom generation are really the ones we need to step up to the plate and participate in some of the large Alzheimer's prevention studies that are happening now," he said. "Even people who don't yet have any cognitive [mental] decline can help in this fight, by participating in those prevention studies."