Women at the epicenter of Alzheimer’s Disease

By Teri Shirk

Kentucky residents Nobuko Tidwell and her daughters, Amy Tidwell and Mitzi Pendergrass, are among the more than 10 million women at the epicenter of Alzheimer’s disease. While women in America enjoy several health advantages and a longer average lifespan compared to men, the latest Alzheimer’s Disease 2014 Facts and Figures report from the Alzheimer’s Association tells us that women are 65 percent more likely than their male counterparts to get Alzheimer’s disease, and 2.5 times more likely than men to be providing 24/7 care for someone with Alzheimer’s. A woman’s estimated lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer’s at age 65 is 1 in 6, compared with nearly 1 in 11 for a man.

Moreover, according to Facts & Figures 2014, women in their sixties are twice as likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s as they are from breast cancer. According to Maria Carrillo, vice president of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association, researchers are looking into reasons why this is the case. We know that age is a major factor for Alzheimer’s, and that women live longer than men on average, but researchers are also examining female genetic and hormonal factors.

In America, we have seen diseases such as breast cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS make tremendous progress in terms of prevention, early detection and treatment after the federal government made a significant investment. Comparable federal investments in Alzheimer’s are needed to achieve similar progress. Eliminating Alzheimer’s today would save 500,000 lives in just over the next 12 months.

Alzheimer’s is America’s Most Expensive Disease

Eliminating Alzheimer’s also would save hundreds of billions in tax dollars and personal health care costs. Nationwide, the direct costs of caring for those with Alzheimer’s will total an estimated $214 billion, including $150 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid, in 2014. Despite these staggering figures, Alzheimer’s will cost an estimated $1.2 trillion (in today’s dollars) in 2050.  Moreover, nearly one in every five dollars spent by Medicare is on people with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, and the average per-person Medicare spending for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is three times higher than for those without these conditions.

On average, an Alzheimer’s patient requires around-the-clock care for four to seven years, but a family member, loved one or nursing home could be feeding, clothing and diapering an individual living with Alzheimer’s for as long as 20 years. In Kentucky in 2013, an estimated 267,000 family members and friends provided 304 million hours of unpaid care for Alzheimer’s patients – care valued at $3.8 billion. Kentucky caregivers also end up incurring additional health care costs of their own, to the tune of an estimated $155 million in 2013, due to the stress of caregiving.

There are other costs associated with the disease as well, as the strain of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is felt the workplace:

  • 20 percent of women vs. 3 percent of men go from working full-time to working part-time while acting as a caregiver.
  • 18 percent of women vs. 11 percent of men take a leave of absence.
  • 11 percent of women vs. 5 percent of men give up work entirely.
  • 10 percent of women vs. 5 percent of men lose job benefits.

Without intervention, these costs will only rise. While more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease (including an estimated 200,000 under the age of 65) today, that number will grow to 16 million by 2050.

It’s Not Just Memory Loss:

The disease that is gradually eating away at Nobuko Tidwell’s brain will eventually lead to her death. No one survives Alzheimer’s. It’s the 6th leading cause of death in America (5th for women); it’s also the only top ten cause of death in the nation for which there is no treatment that can stop – or even slow – its progression. Yet, no new drug has been approved for Alzheimer’s in more than a decade.

By Teri Shirk, Executive Director, Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Kentucky and Southern Indiana