CAPE ELIZABETH — One of the nation’s leading experts on Alzheimer’s disease will answer questions, and discuss research and caregiving next week.
Dr. Laurel Coleman, of Maine Medical Center’s Geriatric Assessment Clinic, served eight years on the Alzheimer’s Association’s national board of directors. She will lead a discussion called “Alzheimer’s: Understanding the Warning Signs, the Disease and the Challenges” on April 16 at 6 p.m. at Cape Memory Care.
Coleman, 51, who grew up on the West Coast and moved to Maine 20 years ago, is serving her second term as a non-federal member on President Obama’s Alzheimer’s Advisory Council, which was created by Congress in 2010 to study research, care and long-term support.
“Because I’m on the national council I feel like it’s both my privilege and responsibility to be available in my state to talk about this epidemic,” said Coleman, who chairs the council’s clinical care subcommittee. “As a geriatrician, I see families and patients every day affected by this, and I can impact them one at a time, but if I go to a group like this, it may be the only time they get to spend an hour with a doctor who cares about this and get to ask questions.”
The topic hits particularly close to home in Maine, one of the oldest states per-capita in the U.S., where more than 25,000 people have Alzheimer’s. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that number will grow by 52 percent by 2020.
“If we don’t make a dent in this, a significant portion of our population is going to have Alzheimer’s disease or be caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease,” Coleman said. “Where does that leave the part of society in Maine working to support the economy?”
When Coleman leads public conversations, she said she dedicates ample time to answering peoples’ questions about Alzheimer’s and its impact on their loved ones. She also provides information about resources and support groups for caregivers.
And she touches on the science. Right now, Coleman said, the study of the protein amyloid, a sticky substance commonly found in the brains of those with the disease, is at the heart of Alzheimer’s research. The question, essentially, is whether amyloid accumulation is a cause or byproduct of the disease.
The effect that vascular health may have on one’s risk of developing dementia is another major focus of today’s cutting-edge research, she said.
Any discussion of Alzheimer’s research quickly leads to the issue of funding. Despite being the most expensive disease in the U.S., costing the country more than $200 billion in 2014, Alzheimer’s disease receives only about $500 million in annual federal funding, Coleman said. It sounds like a lot until you consider that AIDS receives $4 billion and cancer and heart disease get nearly $6 billion each.
“It’s not a competition, but research pays dividends,” she said.
She cites a variety of reasons for its underfunding, including ageism, stigmas associated with dementia, and the shrinking of the NIH budget over the past decade.
“Unlike, say, breast cancer, we don’t have survivors,” Coleman added. “It’s harder to put a real face on it.”
The fact that there may never be a true cure – that the best-case scenario could be preventive therapy, a test for early detection, a means of slowing the disease’s progress – doesn’t help.
But in a world where money talks, there’s no denying the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s. One out of five Medicare dollars is spent on people with Alzheimer’s, Coleman said, and Medicare spends three times as much on Alzheimer’s patients as on people the same age without the disease.
Coleman spent this week in Washington, D.C., at the annual Alzheimer’s Public Policy Forum, meeting with legislators and working with peers to secure funding. She said there’s a staggering amount of work to be done, including the need to build a research infrastructure before bigger leaps can be made, but she thinks the tide may have begun to turn.
“I’m a very optimistic, hopeful person. That’s why I’m doing this,” Coleman said. “People and policymakers need to know what a difficult thing this is both for people with dementia and their families, the growing evidence of the economic burden it creates. And I think they’re beginning to listen.”
Dr. Laurel Coleman