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U.S. launches national war on Alzheimer's
GREAT FALLS, Va. – When doctors told Carol Blackwell that her husband — her best friend and the love of her life — had Alzheimer's disease, they assured her "a cure was just around the corner."
Carol and Bob Blackwell take a daily walk near their suburban Virginia home.
Bob Blackwell was 64, recently retired from the CIA as an analyst on the former Soviet Union and Europe and still functioning normally. "He was brilliant then."
"Here we are, and there's no cure and no promise of a cure," Carol says, sitting in her family room, eyes wet with tears.
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She is Bob's primary caregiver, and the last couple of months have been "tough," she says. There are days when Bob doesn't know she's his wife. "I've been through a lot of grieving," she says. "I know it's too late for a cure for Bob, the disease has moved into too many parts of his brain, but I'm praying for my children and grandchildren. We have to find a cure."
Carol will be paying close attention to government meetings Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington where Health and Human Services officials are gathering with other medical experts to discuss the framework for the first national plan to fight the disease. The No. 1 goal stated in the early draft of the National Alzheimer's Project Act is to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer's by 2025. Although the funding levels have not been determined, disease experts compare the multi-agency federal approach of NAPA to the wars on heart disease and cancer.
Growth of Alzheimer's
Projected number of people 65 and over in the U.S. with Alzheimer's disease* in millions.
* Does not include early onset
Alzheimer's, which is a form of dementia that causes progressive loss of intellectual and social skills, is the only disease among the top killers for which there is no prevention, cure or treatment that will slow its progression.
"I think the potential impact of this plan is huge," says Ron Petersen, chairman of the NAPA non-federal advisory council and director of the Mayo Clinic's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. "Given the economic problems, it's a bit of a challenge, but this is our chance to make a bold statement."
President Obama signed NAPA into law last January. Experts have spent a year formulating the framework for the plan, and the final draft is due on the desk of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this month or early February. George Vradenburg, a member of the research committee with Petersen, says the early plan is good overall but needs to move faster: "It's the first time the government has talked about a time-based goal to stop Alzheimer's. I'm going to urge we accelerate the time. I'm committed to 2020."
The task before them is an urgent one. The disease runs in families — Bob Blackwell's grandmother died from it, and his mother has it — and affects more than 5 million people in the USA. About half the people 85 and older have the disease. The number of cases, including early-onset Alzheimer's like Bob Blackwell's, is likely to triple by 2050 as the Baby Boomers grow old, at which point annual costs are likely to soar to $1 trillion. The illness costs the Medicare and Medicaid programs $130 billion a year.