Published November 28, 2018
Editor’s Note: This commentary was first published in The Oklahoman. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Like many others across the country, my family knows the toll that Alzheimer’s disease takes on those living with it and those caring for them. Marked at first by forgetfulness, the disease at its worst eventually causes personalities to disappear and erases recognition of people and life’s events from memory. I remember how painful it was to see that happen to my father during the last several years of his life.
Congressman Tom Cole with members of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma
While few are unfamiliar with Alzheimer’s and the heartbreaking decline that comes to those with the disease, mystery still largely surrounds its cause and rampant spread. Since the cause is unknown, its onset cannot be predicted or prevented. Even with physicians treating symptoms and caregivers doing their best, it is concerning that more and more people are getting the disease. Just recently, I was saddened to hear of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s own battle with dementia and her decision to step away from public life.
Alzheimer’s has become far too common an affliction. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly 6 million Americans have it today, and projections show that 13.8 million could have the disease by the middle of this century.
Each year, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent caring for people with the disease, including an ever-increasing strain on public resources. This year, the federal government is expected to spend $187 billion treating Alzheimer’s patients through Medicare and Medicaid. That figure is expected to reach an unsustainable $750 billion by 2050.
For family members who often serve as caregivers, the cost is felt beyond dollars. Even out of sincere and selfless love, the task of looking after someone with Alzheimer’s is often physically exhausting and emotionally draining. As a result, many caregivers experience a decline in their own health. During November, we rightly honor the many family members who extend a special labor of love by serving as caregivers.
Without question, Alzheimer’s is much more than a difficult burden to bear. Indeed, it’s a national health crisis with enormous financial and human costs, and I am encouraged that steps have been taken to provide some hope.
To slow down the disease and ultimately find a cure, research truly is the best long-term investment we can make. And since fiscal year 2016, I am proud that Republicans in both chambers of Congress have led the charge in prioritizing, securing and boosting funds for this vital research.
Recognizing the desperate need, the appropriations subcommittee that I chair has consistently called for increased funding for dedicated Alzheimer’s research at the National Institutes of Health. Thanks to the same commitment of my counterpart Sen. Roy Blunt, steady and annual increases for NIH have become the norm. In fact, the president recently signed into law legislation that significantly boosts funding for disease research at NIH — for the fourth straight year. NIH-supported researchers have already been able to forge ahead with new studies.
As lawmakers look toward a new Congress, funding for Alzheimer’s disease research must remain a priority. Especially in divided government, this is an issue that must continue to transcend partisanship. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure funding continues.
Tom Cole (Chickasaw), R-Moore, is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.