On Alzheimer’s Prevention, Obama Has A Record To Run On

Our guest blogger is Amy R. Borenstein, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

You wouldn’t know it from listening to the recent presidential debates, but President Obama has made some real accomplishments in supporting the fight against Alzheimer’s disease — accomplishments with potentially significant economic benefits.

Talking about medical research may not be as sexy for a candidate as talking about the economy, but Alzheimer’s is actually a heavy economic, as well as emotional, burden to bear. The economic cost of caring for people with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. is estimated to be $200 billion for 2012. In Florida alone, about 500,000 people suffer from the disease, and countless more seniors worry about getting it in the future.

My husband’s father, sister, and mother all died from Alzheimer’s disease. The two of us, both epidemiologists, dedicated our careers to working to discover the causes of this disease since long before any of them were diagnosed in the early 1980s.

In my field of epidemiology, we need to have the resources to follow hundreds or thousands of people over time to better understand the causes of Alzheimer’s. That’s why the passage of President Obama’s National Alzheimer’s Project Act in January 2011 was so significant. For the first time, a U.S. President paid serious attention to the enormous burden that Alzheimer’s disease is presenting to the American people and its economy, and made concrete investments in prevention. The president’s National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s disease is providing $156 million for Alzheimer’s research, as well as funding to help manage the disease, help caregivers, and educate the American people about the disease.

Compared to the burden the disease puts on families and the economy, the cost of research like mine — which seeks to understand the causes, improve prevention, and mitigate the costs of the disease — is tiny. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) spent $391 million in Florida in 2010 on competitive research grant funding for all fields of medicine combined. And this research, besides improving our ability to manage and prevent disease, also supports a vibrant research-based economy here in Florida. The NIH’s annual investment in biomedical research in Florida alone employs more than 13,700 scientists like me, and attracts investment from the private sector as well.

Alzheimer’s is a complicated disease without easy answers, but recent progress in my field has been encouraging. We now know that the disease goes on ‘behind the scenes’ for decades before clinical symptoms arise, and that in many cases, prevention through lifestyle changes is a promising path to eradicating the disease — much like heart disease prevention.

And it is heartening to see a President whose administration understands the science well enough to know that prevention is going to be the cure. As Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has said, “We know that prevention helps people live long and productive lives and can help combat rising health care costs.” Along these lines, another forward-looking policy the Obama administration has put in place is the National Prevention Strategy. This, according to Sebelius, will aim to “transform our health care system away from a focus on sickness and disease to a focus on prevention and wellness.”

Governor Romney, on the other hand, has never discussed prevention — in fact, the steep budget cuts he has endorsed would necessitate cutting domestic discretionary investments in things like medical research by as much as 20 percent. According to Office of Management and Budget director Jeff Zients, this would mean 16,000 fewer new biomedical research grants over a decade, and would slow advances in research to fight Alzheimer’s and other diseases.