Report: New Mexico will be hit hard in surge of Alzheimer's

State is forecast to have 36 percent more diagnoses in next seven years, among worst in the nation

By Cynthia Miller
The New Mexican
Posted 4/5/18

Paula Sanchez describes Alzheimer's disease as an unraveling reel of 16 mm film.

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Report: New Mexico will be hit hard in surge of Alzheimer's

State is forecast to have 36 percent more diagnoses in next seven years, among worst in the nation


Paula Sanchez describes Alzheimer's disease as an unraveling reel of 16 mm film.

"You build these memories, and it's wound around this wheel," she said. But at some point, a patient's brain stops recording new experiences, and the wheel begins to unwind. The memories start to vanish, with the most recent fading first. The past eventually becomes present.

Sanchez's mother died from Alzheimer's disease about 17 years ago. She and her husband, Gary, cared for the woman for eight years at their home in Nambé. It was a different era of caregiving, Sanchez said, because so little was known about the illness.

The Sanchezes, as volunteer educators with the nonprofit Alzheimer's Association, have been lending their expertise to other people who are caring for loved ones. With the number of Alzheimer's patients in the U.S. expected to sharply increase in coming years as baby boomers age and improved treatments for other medical conditions keep elderly Americans alive longer, demand for such training also will rise.

According to a data analysis recently released by the Alzheimer's Association, New Mexico is expected to see a nearly 36 percent increase in diagnoses in the next seven years, the nation's fourth-highest growth rate. Advocates say the steep patient increase will further strain an already overtaxed Medicaid system and burden New Mexico's economy in other ways as a greater number of family members leave the workforce to become full-time caregivers for those suffering from a terminal illness that lacks effective treatment.

The 2018 edition of "Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures," which analyzes data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Institutes of Health, the Chicago Health and Aging Project, and other government and nonprofit agencies, comes as President Donald Trump has signed a federal spending bill that allocates an additional $414 million for Alzheimer's research, bringing the total to $1.8 billion for the year.

Experts and advocates are encouraged by the surge in funding, a 30 percent increase from years past.

Some of that money will come to New Mexico through research grants awarded to The University of New Mexico's Memory and Aging Center, said Chris Chaffin, a spokesman with the New Mexico Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

Even with the new injection of cash, however, federal funding aimed at finding a treatment or cure is dwarfed by both the annual cost of care for patients and the amount of federal funds spent each year for research on other leading illnesses.

"We're not appreciating the severity," said Chaffin, who calls Alzheimer's disease a costly public health crisis that demands an urgent response.

"... We need to start taking Alzheimer's seriously as a state. We need to start taking it seriously as a nation."

The Alzheimer's Association predicts the number of patients in New Mexico will rise to 53,000 in 2025 from 39,000 this year, a growth rate that trails only three other states, all in the West: Alaska at 47.6 percent, Arizona at 42.9 percent and Nevada at 42.2 percent.

About 2 percent of New Mexico's population is currently diagnosed with the illness, which the new report calls "underdiagnosed and understudied."

As death rates from other diseases have declined, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, stroke and HIV, Alzheimer's fatalities across the U.S. have climbed 123 percent since 2000, the report says. The disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the nation and the seventh in New Mexico.

Nationwide, says the report, 5.7 million people are living with the disease, a number that is projected to nearly triple in the next three decades.

Still, Chaffin said, it has not received the same level of attention and research funding that have been funneled to other deadly health conditions and have led to significant advances in treatment and prevention.

While the National Institutes of Health will spend an estimated $837 million for research on Alzheimer's and related dementia in fiscal year 2018, the agency's data show, it is expected to spend more than $4.7 billion on cancer.

Meanwhile, the annual cost of care for patients nationwide is more than $200 billion, the report says, with Medicare covering half that amount and Medicare paying a quarter. The annual cost of care per patient is estimated at $48,000.

"Alzheimer's is a fatal brain disease. No one has survived it," said Chaffin, whose organization raises funds for research and offers caregiver education and services. "The impact to our economy is huge," he said, adding that the state is ill-prepared to handle the onslaught.

"We need to change the landscape to accommodate what we know is coming," Chaffin said. He pointed in particular to a need for more education for primary care doctors who can provide early referrals, more neurologists to diagnose and treat patients, and more support for caregivers.

About 107,000 people in the state are serving as caregivers for people with Alzheimer's, a role that keeps them out of the workforce, according to the association's report.

The strain on caregivers often leads to illnesses and long-term medical conditions, increasing their own medical costs.

Some of the most important takeaways of caregiver classes offered by the association, Chaffin said, are lessons on self-care.

"We teach them how to manage their own stress," he said. "Their battery life is important."

Sanchez, who has been leading classes with her husband through the Alzheimer's Association's Savvy Caregiver Program for about a year, said a large part of easing caregiver stress is helping them understand the disease and what a loved one is experiencing, and learning to create a more accommodating environment where the patient feels safe and content and is less likely to exhibit difficult behaviors.

Such a class, Chaffin said, is free of charge. It's one of the many support services offered through the association, which is funded with private donations and revenue raised by events, such as the community-based Walk to End Alzheimer's.

The nonprofit's funding also goes toward research to find a successful treatment. The group has invested more than $405 million in grants for clinical trials and other efforts since the early '80s, its website says.

Chaffin's advice for those who want to help end the disease: Write a letter to the editor, call a state lawmaker or a member of Congress, and start a team for the October 2018 Walk to End Alzheimer's in Santa Fe.

"The future is going to be very bleak," Chaffin said, "if we don't find some sort of breakthrough."

Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or cmiller@sfnewmexican­.com.


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