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Updated Feb 24, 2016 - 10:46 pm

Alzheimer’s in Arizona: A trillion-dollar problem for future generations

(AP Photo)
LISTEN: Alzheimer's in Arizona: A trillion-dollar problem

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a five-part series looking at the effects of Alzheimer’s in Arizona. Read the first two parts here.

PHOENIX -– Economists are predicting Alzheimer’s disease will become a trillion-dollar burden over the next three decades.

The United States spent $153 billion last year on Medicaid and Medicare alone, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. That sum is predicted to grow seven times by 2050.

You could say we are getting what we campaigned for. Sixty years ago, Valley developers campaigned heavily to influence Midwest and Eastern retirees to move to the new Sun City.

Baby boomers were just being born as their grandparents sold their homes to head Sun City, “then Sun City West, Sun City Grand, and Sun City Festival, and then Queen Creek,” Valley neurologist Dr. Marwan Sabbagh said.

That campaign helped build Arizona’s image as a retirement mecca and along with it a world-class reputation for dementia research and care.

“Dementia is the category of disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common type, constituting half to three-quarters of all dementia,” Sabbagh said.

Sabbagh has spent the past 30 years studying dementia, first at Banner Health, and now at Barrow Neurological Institute.

If you were to look inside a brain in the late stages of the disease, “The Alzheimer brain will be 33 percent smaller,” he said. “It will shrink … from protein accumulations in the brain.”

Normal brain (left), brain of person with Alzheimer's, right. (National Institute on Aging Photo)

Normal brain (left), brain of person with Alzheimer’s, right. (National Institute on Aging Photo)

Over time, it breaks down the synapses firing signals in the brain, and, he said, “Once those cells break down, you become forgetful because the brain cells stop talking to each other.”

Fortunately, for the past 17 years, scientists at Arizona’s Alzheimer’s Consortium have shared their findings on dementia research.

“Unfortunately for the patient,” said Dr. Matt Huentelman, “receiving the diagnosis today or tomorrow, it is pretty bleak.” The neurogenomics professor for T-Gen suspected that the medical community has targeted Alzheimer’s patients too late.

“The Food and Drug Administration wants you to treat sick people with medicines,” he said, but he’s excited the agency will soon allow studies on people before the first signs of dementia develop.

“Matt’s a big thinker,” said Sabbagh, who is working closely with Huentelman on several dementia projects.

Using old treatments and drugs in new medical trials makes sense to them.

“I’m pretty encouraged. We’re going to have some winners here,” Huentelman said.

Until then, James Fitzpatrick with the Alzheimer’s Association is concerned for the caregivers who are giving up careers and losing four-billion dollars in wages annually.

“We tend to see a whole bunch of children moving clear across the country,” he said.

Last year, family caregivers in Arizona worked 357 million hours helping loved ones living with Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

Along with the job loss, they are losing work benefits while personally facing an additional $155 million in health care costs for their own health issues, according to a September report by the Arizona Alzheimer’s Task Force.

Fitzpatrick explained the caregiver experiences his or her own stress related illnesses including, “Heart disease, depression, and sleeplessness.”

If we don’t get ahead of it, he is worried, “It won’t bankrupt our state, it will bankrupt our country.”


If you suspect you or a loved-one may have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, contact any of the following agencies for help in Arizona:

• Alzheimer’s Association Desert Southwest Chapter

• Arizona Dept. of Health Services

• Arizona Center on Aging

• Arizona Hospice of the Valley Caregivers’ Support

• Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium

• Barrow Neurological Institute on Alzheimer’s

• Duet