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For years, the Alzheimer’s Association held “memory walks” to raise money and awareness of this progressive, fatal disease. Not anymore. The annual event is now a “Walk to End Alzheimer’s.”

“It was a more forward-looking slogan,” says Suzanne Belser, executive director of the Montana Chapter in Billings. “We want people to focus on finding a cure.”

In fact, nearly 200 companies worldwide are researching some type of treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. However, there isn’t yet a cure or even a treatment to effectively slow the progression of the disease.

More than 5.4 million Americans have this brain disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 21,000 of them live in Montana, according to a 2010 estimate. Because Montana’s population is older than average, its Alzheimer’s population is rising faster than average. The state is projected to have 29,000 Alzheimer’s patients by 2025.

Although most cases of Alzheimer’s develop after age 60, a growing number of cases have been diagnosed in younger Americans.

Joe Mazurek’s legacy

Joe Mazurek, former Montana attorney general and legislator, was one of those early-onset patients. A respected lawyer and public servant with friends in both major political parties, Mazurek was known for his excellent command of facts, figures and details. He led the Montana Department of Justice with its 700 employees and $40 million budget for eight years. But several years later, still in his 50s, Mazurek’s great mind started to fail. At age 63, he could barely speak and relied constantly on his wife and other caregivers.

“It’s a devastating disease,” Patty Mazurek told an interviewer earlier this year. “You notice little pieces of him all the time that are gone. That’s why they call it the long goodbye.”

When Joe Mazurek died last month of Alzheimer’s disease at 64, the news touched many Montanans who knew his career in law and government. His passing probably touched even more Montanans who know the devastation of Alzheimer’s.

“Over half of the people in the United States have been touched by Alzheimer’s, either as patients or knowing someone who has the disease,” Belser said.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death among American adults, and the fifth leading cause of death for adults aged 65 years and older. The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease has doubled since 1980.

In 2004, total Medicare and Medicaid spending for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease was estimated at $130 billion.

In 2012, federal spending to care for Americans with Alzheimer’s is projected to be nearly $200 billion, according to the Alzheimer’s association. Medicare and Medicaid cover about 70 percent of the costs of Alzheimer’s care.

The average per-person Medicare payments for those with Alzheimer’s are three times higher than for those without dementia. Medicaid spending for older adults with Alzheimer’s disease is nine times higher.

The financial estimates don’t include millions of unpaid caregivers, usually family members, who quit their jobs to tend loved ones. In Montana, an estimated 50,000 people are caring for family members with Alzheimer’s.

Underfunded research

It’s time to let policymakers in Helena and Washington, D.C., know what tens of thousands of Montana families have learned firsthand: Alzheimer’s kills slowly and the burden of this disease is growing rapidly.

Last year, the U.S. government finally created a plan for attacking Alzheimer’s. Proponents rejoiced in the National Alzheimer’s Project Act and called on Congress to appropriate $100 million this year to implement it with $80 million for research and $20 million for patient support. That modest investment would be a start on combating a disease taking millions of lives and 200 billion taxpayer dollars. Congress hasn’t appropriated the funds yet.

Alzheimer’s is the only top 10 killer in America that has no known prevention, treatment or cure, Belser noted.

“It’s the largest unfunded public health problem in the United States,” she said.

America must do better. Now.

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