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Every 71 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer's disease (AD). In 2050, Alzheimer's will strike every 33 seconds if no cure is found for the progressive, fatal brain disease. Like most statistics about Alzheimer's, these are staggering — more so because recent surveys show that while half of Americans say they have been touched by someone with Alzheimer's, a majority underestimate the prevalence and impact of this insidious disease.

Nearly one-third of American adults, for example, think there are approximately 1 million Alzheimer's sufferers in the United States, according to a 2009 Harris Interactive Census conducted for HBO's The Alzheimer's Project. In fact, at least 5 million Americans are afflicted. The Harris census and a 2007 Alzheimer's Association survey showed that few people know that AD is a leading cause of death in the United States, that it is difficult to diagnose, or that it is the third most expensive disease to treat after heart disease and cancer.

American adults fear Alzheimer's more than heart disease, stroke, or diabetes, according to a 2006 MetLife Foundation survey.

That may explain why a substantial majority (65 percent) acknowledge that they joke about Alzheimer's, but only half of those who responded to the Alzheimer's Association survey knew that people lose control of their bodies and die from AD. Approximately one in three Americans worries about getting Alzheimer's, according to the Harris survey. The truth is, many Americans will develop Alzheimer's or care for someone who has it during their lifetimes. Ours is an aging society, and Alzheimer's is primarily a disease affecting older people.

An estimated 5 million people 65 and older suffer now from Alzheimer's, and 10 million baby boomers are poised to get it, according to federal health statistics. By 2030, the number of afflicted people over 65 is expected to rise to 7.7 million — more than a 50 percent increase from today. The Alzheimer's Association estimates that some 70 percent of Alzheimer's patients live with their families, and 10 million American adults provide “free” at-home AD care.

Alzheimer's will soon prove impossible to ignore. In 1995 an estimated 377,000 new cases of Alzheimer's were diagnosed each year. By 2000, that number had risen to 411,000 cases. An estimated 500,000 are diagnosed annually today, and that number could double to close to 1 million cases per year by 2050, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Alzheimer's disease threatens to engulf the Medicare system by 2030, when AD alone will cost the federal health insurer $400 billion — nearly as much as the entire current Medicare budget, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's on the horizon, nor is there a magic bullet to treat it, though several interesting theories on detecting and managing the disease are under investigation. But research and development of new treatments and techniques also demand investment of time and human capital.

Scientific understanding of AD is progressing, and researchers maintain they are making significant strides toward diagnosing, treating, and preventing the disease.

But as the number of AD diagnoses has risen, funding for Alzheimer's research and development has been flat. Only public awareness and advocacy will change that. Presented with the facts about Alzheimer's, 72 percent of survey participants said they would be willing to help raise funds for an Alzheimer's cure.

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  2. Alzheimer's Disease
  3. Introduction
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