I could write a blog a day about emerging news on Alzheimer's disease, and that's a good thing because it means we're all paying more attention to an affliction that is sure to proliferate as the proportion of our population 65 and older surges. Here are a couple of interesting new wrinkles I want to share with you.
The Chicago Tribune ran an article on Feb. 14 about the growing number of men becoming caregivers for their wives, parents or other family members. The article reports that "in the last 15 years, the number of men caring for loved ones with Alzheimer's or dementia has more than doubled, from 19 to 40 percent." Interviews with several Illinoisans illustrate the challenges they face.
One man says that when his wife realized she was slipping deeper into dementia, she knew it was time to begin training him. "She worked me to death," Doug Wyman recalled with a laugh. "She had me cleaning this and cleaning that. She saw dust I couldn't see. And I had never, ever washed clothes."
In his budget announced earlier this month, President Obama proposed $26 million for outreach as well as financial and other support to people with Alzheimer's and to caregivers like Wyman.
Now the National Institutes of Health says it will redirect $50 million of its 2012 budget toward Alzheimer's research, and the president's budget calls for an additional $80 million in research funding next year. The $130 million total is a 25 percent increase in the NIH's current Alzheimer's research budget of $450 million.
It's all part of a federal push to better understand and treat the disease. In January, I wrote about Health & Human Services' plans to develop a national strategy on Alzheimer's with the ambitious goal of finding effective treatments by 2025. An advisory council has begun to work out details of the plan, some of which include better training for health care workers, registries to help patients get into clinical trials and better coordination of research and the money spent on it.
"We can't wait to confront the growing threat that Alzheimer's disease poses to American families, and to our nation as a whole," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.
Another significant development is new diagnostic criteria that would reclassify almost all patients currently diagnosed with mild or very mild Alzheimer's. Those patients would now be classified as having mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, and would be deemed capable of "independent functioning," according to the guidelines adopted last year by the Alzheimer's Association and the National Institute on Aging. But exactly what constitutes independent functioning is unclear, some experts say, and could mean the ability to perform certain — but not all — daily tasks without help. Skeptics worry the new definition is too fuzzy and will confuse providers, patients and family members. To learn why they're concerned, go to Alice Park's Healthland blog for Time.
Let's hope all this new attention on Alzheimer's and related dementia triggers real momentum toward developing a deeper understanding of the diseases and new tools for both professional and family caregivers to better help people suffering from them.
In the meantime, much of the burden will fall on individuals like Doug Wyman — though he might deny caring for his wife is a burden at all.
"She took care of me for 60-something years," Wyman told Tribune reporter Vikki Ortiz Healy. "It's absolutely a pleasure to serve her now."
Bill Santamour is managing editor of Hospitals & Health Networks. Follow our tweets at https://twitter.com/hhnmag.