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Alzheimer's looms as huge Medicare threat

A recent Mayo Clinic study delivered a stunning finding: The incidence of a pre-Alzheimer's condition in those 70 and older may be more than twice as high as experts previously thought. The study is both sad and sobering, particularly as the baby boom generation grays.

Few diagnoses are more devastating than Alzheimer's, which obliterates thinking skills, personality and dignity. Now it appears that more families than ever will grapple with this terrible disease in years ahead.

But lost in the study's news coverage was another important point: There are downright frightening implications for Medicare, the nation's federal health care program for the elderly. Depended on by millions for everything from broken hips to prescription drugs, Medicare is already in serious financial trouble. This spring, the Medicare Trustees, who include key presidential Cabinet members, sounded a dire alarm on the program's rising costs. For 2007, expenditures were $432 billion, or 3.2 percent of the gross domestic product. Left unchecked, that could rise to nearly 11 percent in 75 years. The report also found that from 2009 to 2017, expenses for Medicare's Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will exceed income by about $342 billion, meaning other taxpayer dollars will pick up the shortfall.

Now add higher-than-expected Alzheimer's cases to this grim financial scenario. It simply does not work. Although Alzheimer's patients' families shoulder an amazing amount of their care, those with the disease also consume an extraordinary share of health resources. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Medicare spends three times the amount caring for patients with Alzheimer's and other dementias over other beneficiaries. One key reason: Alzheimer's patients are hospitalized far more often. "If we don't find a cure or treatment to delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease, we're going to be overwhelmed by the burden of these individuals on the health care system,'' the Mayo study's lead author, Dr. Ronald Petersen, said in a statement.

Part of the solution, as Petersen notes, lies in finding better treatments and ultimately, a cure. Congress stepped up from 1998 to 2003 and increased the amount for Alzheimer's funding at the National Institutes of Health. Funding since then has lost significant ground when inflation is factored in. That's unfortunate. Money spent on Alzheimer's research is an investment, and could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Funding needs to be a national priority once again.

Organizations from across the political spectrum -- from the Heritage Foundation to the Brookings Institution -- recognize the threat that the Medicare crisis is to the nation and have proposed a number of intriguing solutions that deserve an airing. Meanwhile, the presidential candidates have essentially ignored the crisis. The nation's voters -- and seniors -- deserve better. The Mayo study is further evidence that a Medicare overhaul is no longer an if -- it's a when.