Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Alzheimer's: The Drug Industry's Disease Of The Month

Are we suddenly having an Alzheimer's epidemic in this country? I hear more about Alzheimers than I do about almost any other disease. I see it on the news. Major celebrities out fundraising, trying to get money for research: Find A Cure. Those local news "human interest" stories showing some old guy or lady, maybe a little confused now, talking about the tragedy of 90-year-olds who can't remember their kids. HBO with a multi-part special.

I'm listening to the radio right now, and they are advertising a clinical trial for victims of Alzheimers. And, perhaps not coincidentally, I see major Drug Dealers (aka pharmaceuticals) advertising on television that we can help dad, or grandma, by giving them some (probably very expensive) drugs to "fight" Alzheimers. These commercials always have the cute little kids, the grandkids: Help Charlie's grandkids have a little more time with him. So emotional, so manipulative. I would bet good money that these Drug Dealers will soon be convincing the Medical Industry in this country that every person should start taking their miracle drug at age 50, and take it forever, to "help fight" against Alzheimers. I see and smell money in this sudden nationwide panic about the plague of Alzheimers.

So I decided to look it up. And was very surprised to find that this is not nearly the epidemic that we are being sold. Maybe the Drug Dealers are just pushing drugs, like Social Anxiety Disorder drugs for people who have ever felt shy or uncomfortable. Maybe this particular problem is receiving so much attention because the people getting it are older, white, relatively privileged people with paid medical care.

Here's how it breaks down. There are about 40 million Americans over the age of 65 (out of a total national population of 305 million). That means 13% of the total population of this country is over the age of 65. Of those 40 million Americans over the age of 65, 5 million have Alzheimers (12% of the over-65 crowd). That means about 1.6% of the total population of the United States has Alzheimers: a pretty small percentage. Even for all Americans over the age of 65, only 12% of them have Alzheimers.

Now, what do these people over the age of 65 have, that the rest of us don't have? Paid national healthcare. Which means that however small a percentage of the population they are, the drug companies, doctors, and hospitals make lots of money "treating" older Americans. And these Medical Industries have an incentive to get the rest of the country to contribute money for research to find new drugs which the drug companies can sell to older Americans. Or to create national scares, using fear tactics, to get the country to invest in research to create new drugs to treat older Americans.

But let's go further. 6 million of the 40 million people over 65 are actually over 85 years old. Of the people over 85, it is estimated that half of them have Ahzheimers. So it appears to be concentrated in not just seniors, but in very old people. That means that only 2 million people between the ages of 65 and 85 have Alzheimers, which is about 6% of the people in that age group.

So here's the question: why the sudden obsession with Alzheimers? I don't question that it is a terrible disease. I've known people who had relatives with Alzheimers, and it is an awful thing to watch the deterioration. But the same is true of cancer. So why the focus on Alzheimers?

Let's look at colon cancer. The risk begins much younger than for Alzheimers, and doctors recommend screening begin at 40. 150,000 new colon cancer cases are found every year. It is a disease with a high cure rate if found early. The best means of detection is a colonoscopy, a procedure which involves sticking a tube and camera up into a patient's colon and having a look-see to find evidence of early cancer.

The colon cancer screening test costs over $1,000.00. For people with any kind of deductible on their health insurance, that means the test is not covered. For people without insurance, obviously there is no coverage. We could save thousands, possibly even millions of lives simply by having a government-sponsored healthcare system which would allow Americans to take advantage of this life-saving test that is already here, already available, doesn't require any further "research." All you need is money. But a big percentage of Americans will not get this test because they can't afford it. And that means they will die, needlessly, for lack of money to pay for this simple, available test.

I can't see fund-raising to get more money so the drug industry can develop more drugs to treat a disease that mostly affects very old people (who happen to have national healthcare) when our country does not provide the funding for the rest of us to take advantage of already existing, common, simple testing methods that could save our lives.

So I guess I won't be kicking in any money so "little Chuckie and Susie, the grandkids, can have a more time with grandpa." I'd suggest that Chuckie and Susie, and their parents, start demanding healthcare for themselves, because without a national single-payer healthcare system, it's unlikely they'll make it past 50, nevermind past 85 like old grandpa.

1 comment:

  1. Hey NAB...

    I think you're exactly right about the mistaken priorities of corporate healthcare and Big Pharma. About a third of every healthcare dollar is spent on... the last year of life!The last 12 months of more or less hopeless misery!

    "A disproportionate share of medical costs occur at the end of life, according to background information in the first article. Almost one-third of Medicare expenditures are attributable to the 5 percent of beneficiaries who die each year, and about one-third of expenses in the last year of life are spent in the final month. Previous studies suggest that most of these costs result from life-sustaining care, including resuscitation and mechanical ventilation."

    And meanwhile, just as you say, tens of thousands of men and women in their prime die because they can't afford a test!