Few states are in a position to study Alzheimer’s disease like Maine, the oldest in the nation. And few states would benefit as much from a cure.

That’s why we’re encouraged by the new initiative at Northern Light Health. The Brewer-based health care network has launched a statewide research study looking at Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive diseases related to aging.

The research, done in partnership with The Jackson Laboratory, the University of Maine and the state’s major hospital networks, with be housed at Acadia Hospital in Bangor. However, residents throughout the state can take part through their primary care physician.

The study hopes to draw hundreds of participants, who take regular cognitive tests and lifestyle surveys so that results can be tracked through the years. Over time, researchers should be able to make determinations about how exercise, diet, sleep and other lifestyle choices influence the brain diseases of aging. A second phase may recruit patients with high risk factors or who have early onset dementia, and would include tests such as brain imaging and gene sequencing.

Maine is a good location for such research, not only because of our high percentage of seniors but also because the study can reach lower income, rural Americans in a way researchers say doesn’t always happen. It’s important to see how those demographic points factor in.

The study is a small part of a research blitz aimed at solving the Alzheimer’s puzzle. Despite decades of research, there has been little progress in curing or slowing the progression of the disease. Of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, Alzheimer’s is the only one that cannot be prevented, treated or cured.

The suffering caused by Alzheimer’s and other dementia — to those who see their memories and sense of self slowly erode, and to the families who have to watch it happen helplessly — is immense. So is the cost to our health care system.

And it is only going to get worse.

About 10 percent of people over the age of 65 are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It now affects 5.8 million Americans, and about 28,000 Mainers.

The country is aging, with 10,000 baby boomers a day hitting 65. Nowhere is that happening faster than in Maine, where by 2030, more than a quarter of the state will be over the age of 65.

By 2025, an estimated 35,000 Mainers will have Alzheimer’s, a 25 percent increase. Nationwide, it’s estimated that nearly 14 million Americans will have the disease by 2050, with a million new cases added every year at that point.

Left alone, it will overwhelm the health care system. Alzheimer’s now costs Medicare and Medicaid $195 billion a year — good for 1 in every 5 dollars that is spent on Medicare. By 2050, as spending quadruples, Alzheimer’s care is expected to account for 1 in every 3 Medicare dollars.

And that’s just what is paid for directly; in Maine alone in 2017, Alzheimer’s patients required 79 million hours of unpaid care, mostly by family members.

Annual federal funding for Alzheimer’s research has increased from $400 million to $2.3 billion in just a few years, thanks in part to the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s Disease, founded and co-chaired by Maine Sen. Susan Collins. Collins and other advocates hope to increase the amount to $2.8 billion for next year.

There is no doubt the additional funding is necessary. We need everyone who can working to solve the Alzheimer’s puzzle.


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