Opinion: Fight Alzheimer’s rise in Georgia

Credit: Dean Rohrer/NewsArt

Credit: Dean Rohrer/NewsArt

The Alzheimer’s Association this week released its annual look at the prevalence, risk, mortality and economic impact of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. To me, as CEO of the Georgia chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, the 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report was not a huge surprise. I know well that more than 5.3 million persons in the United States are living with Alzheimer’s, and that every 67 seconds, someone is diagnosed. The trajectory of the disease is climbing at a rapid pace, and experts are calling it a global epidemic.

But what stopped me in my tracks was that for the first time, Georgia has moved up to a Tier I position as one of 10 states projected to be most impacted by Alzheimer’s disease during the next decade. In the next 10 years, the percentage of people aged 65 or older living with Alzheimer’s in Georgia will rise 46.2 percent, to 190,000 persons. This will have enormous health, safety and economic implications for our state.

The increase is fueled by Georgia’s growing senior population. By 2025, the population aged 65 and older in Georgia will increase 43 percent to 1.9 million ; it will rise 56 percent, to 958,849, in the 20-county metro Atlanta region, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Among the major factors in this growth, ARC notes, are the aging of baby boomers – the largest generation ever in the U.S. – followed by the aging of Generation X, both large demographic populations in the Atlanta area, as well as the number of people aging in place in Georgia. Also, baby boomers who moved to Florida are coming back to Georgia because of lower costs.

And we cannot forget people are living longer because of the medical advancements with major diseases.

The good news is more people, particularly 65 and older, are surviving cancer and heart disease. The bad news? They are now at risk for Alzheimer’s.

Currently, one in every three seniors has Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s kills more people than breast and prostate cancer combined. If you are a woman, the statistics are worse. Two-thirds of all people with Alzheimer’s are women. We are at the epicenter. Not only are we being diagnosed with the disease, we are now caregivers for those with the disease.

The 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures estimates there were more than 500,000 Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers in Georgia last year, providing 576 million hours of unpaid care valued at $7.015 billion. The physical toll of caregiving was reflected in the $251 million in higher health care costs of Georgia caregivers last year.

There is also the economic impact: Alzheimer’s Association surveys show 54 percent of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers had to go in late to work or leave work early; 15 percent had to take a leave of absence; 13 percent had to go from working full time to part time, and 9 percent had to give up working entirely.

Though Alzheimer’s disease statistics for Georgia are unsettling, our state is not taking this lying down. Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law Georgia’s first Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias State Plan. The Alzheimer’s Association/Georgia chapter played a major role in its passage. The plan will improve the services, safety, treatment, housing and public education for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Our organization also advocated for a statewide Alzheimer’s Disease Registry that has been created to generate new data for research and planning. And we worked for passage this year of a bill to move the state Division of Aging Services to a new Adult and Aging Services agency attached to the Department of Community Health, which will improve services and funding.

The Alzheimer’s Association/Georgia chapter also has embarked on a three-year strategic growth plan to increase awareness and the number of persons we serve by 50 percent. Studies have consistently shown active management of Alzheimer’s and other dementias can improve quality of life for persons diagnosed and their caregivers through all stages of the disease. That’s where the Alzheimer’s Association can help through its educational programs and services.

We will not stop until there is an end to Alzheimer’s disease. But we cannot get there alone. We ask Georgians to join the fight. Write your congressman and ask for support of more federal funding for Alzheimer’s research. Or donate time or money to our chapter so we can continue to help Georgians diagnosed with the disease and their caregivers. We want to do as much as we can, as fast as we can, to end this devastating disease and ensure the care and support of all who need it.