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Alzheimer's Cases Expected To Rise At A More Rapid Rate

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A new study suggests the number of cases of Alzheimer's disease may increase at a higher rate than expected, affecting as many as 16 million Americans by the year 2050.

Previous studies had put that estimate at 14 million by the middle of the century. The latest study suggests that the disease has the potential to overwhelm the nation's health care system if nothing is done to stop it, warns Sheldon Goldberg, president of the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association.

The jump in cases could cause the collapse of Medicare and Medicaid, federal health plans that help pay for Alzheimer's care.

And it almost certainly would devastate millions of American families. Goldberg says many families go bankrupt paying for care before federal programs kick in.

''This will have a massive impact on our society,'' Goldberg says, adding that U.S. companies already pay an estimated $61 billion a year for medical expenses and productivity losses associated with Alzheimer's disease.

The aging American population is behind the crush of new cases. Denis Evans of the Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center and his colleagues first studied a group of ethnically diverse, healthy elderly people in Chicago. The researchers figured out how many developed Alzheimer's in a four-year period. Then the team estimated the number of Americans who develop the disease nationwide. Finally they used Census Bureau estimates to gauge the growth of the disease.

The study, which is published in this month's Archives of Neurology, predicts that 11.3 million to 16 million Americans will develop Alzheimer's by 2050. A previous study said 7.5 to 14 million would get the disease by then. Today about 4.5 million Americans have the incurable brain disease.

The reason for the increase: The new study takes into account that Americans are living longer than ever, Evans says. Age is the single greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's, he says.

The study highlights the need for more research on the disease, which causes forgetfulness, a decline in mental ability and eventually death.

Treatments available today do slow the disease somewhat. But researchers must find a way to prevent the disease if they are to slow its growth, says Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad of the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The Alzheimer's Association has asked Congress to increase federal spending for Alzheimer's research -- from $640 million to at least $1 billion a year.

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