What If We Can Delay the Onset of Alzheimer's by Just a Few Years?

Families would save fortunes.

With members of the baby-boomer generation entering their senior years, the number of Alzheimer's patients across the country is set to double by the year 2050. And it will cost a fortune.

While the number of people with Alzheimer's will double, the costs of the disease will quintuple.

According to a new analysis by the University of Southern California, the costs associated with Alzheimer's will reach $1.5 trillion by 2050, up from $307 billion in 2010. The analysis considers Medicare, Medicaid, and out-of-pocket costs as well as the costs incurred by a family member who serves as a primary caregiver.

For perspective, consider this: In 2011, the U.S. spent about $718 billion on defense (which was 20 percent of the total federal budget). This USC estimate for Alzheimer's is more than twice that amount.

In these numbers is a frightening reality: While the number of people with Alzheimer's will double, the costs of the disease will quintuple. Below, you can see the dramatic difference just a few years of delayed onset for Alzheimer's can make, both for society and for individuals:

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The neurodegenerative disease slowly erases a person's ability to take care of himself or herself and to interact with the world. Patients often need expensive and exhausting round-the-clock supervision. As National Journal's Tiffany Stanley personally experienced, a high-quality nursing home can cost $80,000 a year, and Medicare doesn't cover long-term custodial care. In many cases, it's up to a family member to step in as caregiver, in lieu of professionals.

While a full Alzheimer's cure may not be in sight, the USC study explains that small progress in the fight against Alzheimer's can have a huge impact. If medicine gets to a point where it can just delay the onset of Alzheimer's by five years, it would save society $600 billion a year by 2050. For individuals, a five-year delay would save $511,208 (measured in 2010 dollars) and would add an additional 2.7 years to their lives.

"While the ultimate goal of therapies for [Alzheimer's] is to cure individuals, this research illustrates that more readily available and likely treatments can prove to be extremely valuable to individuals through more AD-free years of life, to their caregivers through lower care-giving demands, and to society as a whole," the report concludes.