Dr. Laurel Coleman works directly with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, trying to improve lives one at a time.

She brought that first-hand experience with her to Washington, D.C., as she helped develop the recently released National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s. The plan could help millions of people cope, or even avoid, the brutal disease that robs patients of things potentially more dear to them than their physical abilities — their memories and personal identities.

Coleman, 49, a Manchester physician who specializes in geriatrics, was a key member of the Advisory Council on Alzheimer’s Research Care and Services, whose research and recommendations formed the basis of the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s disease. The plan has a bold goal of finding a way to prevent and effectively treat the disease by 2025, and improve care today.

Coleman, who is an attending physician at Maine Medical Center’s Geriatric Clinic in Portland and a member of Central Maine Medical Center’s Palliative Care Team in Lewiston, was one of only two direct health care providers, and one of only a dozen members of the national advisory committee not representing federal agencies. She previously served on the board of directors of the National Alzheimer’s Association.

“This is such a game-changer, this illness,” Coleman said. “Patients and families say, ‘This is not what retirement was supposed to be like.’ You just can’t turn away from that. I get to work with patients on a micro scale, one to one. But I also get to play a part in the bigger picture, and try to change the health care system and make things better. That’s such a privilege, to get to do both things. It informs what I do in Washington, where there are brilliant people all around me. My role, I think, is to bring some of those real life stories about taking care of people, so we don’t forget why we’re there.”

Alzheimer’s is an irreversible progressive disease that slowly destroys the brain’s function, leading to cognitive decline such as memory loss, behavioral and psychiatric disorders such as depression, and declines in functional abilities such as taking care of oneself.

Coleman said she believes the goal of preventing and effectively treating the disease by 2025, prime among the council’s 35 recommendations, is realistic.

“It’s entirely do-able if we have the resources to do it and the conviction to do it,” she said. “It has to be. We’re paying one way or the other here. To invest in therapies that could push it back or prevent it makes so much more sense than paying for the millions and millions more people who will get it.”

An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease — including more than 25,000 people in Maine — more than double the number in 1980, according to the council.

If nothing is done to change the growth of the disease, 11 million to 16 million people will have Alzheimer’s disease by 2050, driving the cost of care to $1.1 trillion in that year alone.

In addition to the suffering it causes in patients and their families, Alzheimer’s costs the U.S. about $200 billion a year, primarily in nursing home and other long-term care costs, the council’s report states.

That figure, Coleman said, will only increase exponentially as the baby-boom generation ages.

She said money spent on research now can pay dividends later, not just in lives made better, but financially by reducing the number of people who will need treatment.

More spending on research is another key recommendation of the national plan.

“Right now the way expenditures are going we spend $3 to care for someone, and we only pay a penny for research,” Coleman said. “That’s going to get even more lopsided as people age. We asked for a more balanced plan.”

Coleman said cancer was thought to be a terminal illness several decades ago, but now many types of cancer are curable because of investments in research.

“It’s time, now, for Alzheimer’s to be elevated to that level so we gain some of the benefit of that investment,” she said.

In response to the National Alzheimer Plan’s preliminary findings, the National Institutes of Health immediately dedicated an additional $50 million from its fiscal year 2012 funding to Alzheimer’s disease research. President Barack Obama’s administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposed $80 million in new Alzheimer’s disease research funding.

Coleman was appointed to the advisory committee by Sen. Susan Collins, Senate co-chairperson of the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s Disease and co-author of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act of 2010.

“Dr. Coleman has been a strong advocate for improved quality of care for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and has worked with Maine policy makers and regulators to develop both home and facility-based care options,” Collins said in her letter recommending Coleman for the position. “Dr. Coleman has worked throughout her career to raise awareness about dementia, giving hundreds of lectures to medical professionals and community organizations. She has also worked with the press and the entertainment industry to encourage more accurate portrayals of Alzheimer’s disease in the media and to highlight the challenges that families and caregivers face on a daily basis.”

Coleman said her grandmother had dementia, which was likely Alzheimer’s, and that was part of what made her interested in geriatrics.

The advisory council’s work involved holding town hall-style meetings to listen to people’s thoughts and concerns about the disease. The council held four meetings in Washington, D.C., and numerous telephone conference calls.

Coleman, who was nominated to a two-year stint on the council, which she hopes will be renewed, said their work is far from done.

“The plan is an ongoing thing,” said Coleman, who is married and has two kids, one in college and the other in high school. “We released it to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, she gets to decide what she submits to Congress, based on the plan, so we need to keep advocating to our elected officials, ‘This is important.’

“We’re not done. But it’s a great start and we’ll be improving on it each year. We’re ready to get working on next year’s plan.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

For more information on Alzheimer’s disease:

* National Alzheimer’s Association: www.alz.org

* National Alzheimer’s Project Act, including the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s disease: http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/napa

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