Nation

US panel sets goals for care of dementia

Anti-Alzheimer’s strategy in works

WASHINGTON - Effective treatments for Alzheimer’s by 2025?

That’s the target the government has in place as it develops a national strategy to tackle what could become the defining disease of a rapidly aging population.

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It is an ambitious goal - and yesterday, advisers to the government stressed that millions of families need better help now to care for their loved ones.

“What’s really important here is a comprehensive plan that deals with the needs of people who already have the disease,’’ said Harry Johns, president of the Alzheimer’s Association and one of the advisers.

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Already families approach the advisory committee “reminding us of the enormity of our task,’’ said Dr. Ron Petersen, an Alzheimer’s specialist at the Mayo Clinic who chairs the panel.

The Obama administration is developing the first National Alzheimer’s Plan to address the medical and social problems of dementia - not just better treatments but better day-to-day care for dementia patients and help for their caregivers, too.

The plan still is being written, with the advisory panel’s input. But a draft of its overall goals sets 2025 as a target date to have effective treatments and ways to delay if not completely prevent the illness. Some advisory members said that is not aggressive enough, and 2020 would be a better target date.

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“We think the difference of five years is incredibly meaningful,’’’said Dr. Jennifer Manly of Columbia University.

An estimated 5.4 million Americans already have Alzheimer’s or similar dementias - and how to help their families cope with day-to-day care is a priority, the advisory committee made clear yesterday.

The disease is growing steadily as the population ages: By 2050, 13 million to 16 million Americans are projected to have Alzheimer’s, costing $1 trillion in medical and nursing home expenditures - not counting the billions in unpaid care provided by relatives and friends.

Today’s treatments only temporarily ease some dementia symptoms and work to find better ones has been frustratingly slow. Scientists now know that Alzheimer’s is brewing for years before symptoms appear and hunting ways to stall the disease, maybe long enough that potential sufferers will die of something else first.

Among the goals being debated for the national plan:

- Begin a national public awareness campaign of dementia’s early warning signs, to improve timely diagnosis.

- Give primary care doctors the tools to assess signs of dementia as part of Medicare’s annual check-up.

- Have caregivers’ health, physical and mental, regularly checked.

- Improve care-planning and training for families to know what resources are available.

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