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How Could Advances in Alzheimer’s Research and Funding Potentially Impact the Demand for Services?

Though a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias remains elusive, progress is being made to slow the course of the disease and better treat its symptoms. These advances have the potential to affect the future demand for memory care services and facilities.

A panel of experts at the 2017 NIC Fall Conference presented the latest findings on Alzheimer’s disease that could impact the industry in a session titled, “The Future Demand for Alzheimer’s Care: What Current Research Reveals.” Just a few weeks later in November, Bill Gates announced a $100 million investment in Alzheimer’s research. Dismayed by the lack of treatment for the disease and the volume of failed drug trials, Gates made this investment hoping that a viable treatment will be available in the next 10 years.

Appropriately, NIC conference panel moderator and CEO of Enlivant, Jack Callison, asked “The fundamental question for investors and operators is: What will the demand for care look like over the next two decades?” Callison was joined on the panel by Maria Carrillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association; Pinchas Cohen, M.D., Dean of the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology; and Jean Makesh, CEO of the Lantern Group, an assisted living and memory care provider.

The session began with a clip from a documentary, “Spent: The Hidden Cost of Dementia.” Currently in production, the film addresses the financial impact of the disease on families and society. By 2050, the film noted, 14 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s disease. And while today the country spends $200 billion annually on care for those with the disease, the cost is projected to top $1 trillion by 2050.

Callison noted that there are currently 120,000 memory care units nationwide, about double the number in 2008. About 5.4 million Americans have the disease, a number that has grown by 500,000 over each of the past few decades. The number of those afflicted will continue to swell unless new treatments or a cure is found. “The growth is staggering,” said Callison. Indeed, Gates echoed this sentiment in a recent interview with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, lamenting that “the growing burden is pretty unbelievable.”

In the NIC session, Carrillo explained that pharmaceutical companies spend about $500 million a year on research to find drugs to slow the progress of the disease and treat its symptoms. There is a pipeline of new drugs, she said, though the number is small compared to those in development to treat cancers.

In a hopeful sign, the amount of money devoted to research has grown over the last three years to about $1.8 billion annually. “That should change the trajectory of new developments,” said Carrillo. Gates’ contribution will serve to increase the amount of money available for research even more, though he hopes to fund innovative approaches to treatment. He told Dr. Gupta, “Ideally, some of these mainstream drugs that report out in the next two or three years will start us down the path of reducing the problem. But I do think these newer approaches will eventually be part of that drug regimen that people take.”

Makesh shared his approach for the care of those with memory loss who live in the Lantern Group’s buildings, which includes innovative interventions. For example, building design figures in the treatment plan, with features that recall previous eras and lighting schemes that mimic sunrise and sunset. “We are using the design to minimize behaviors that might be a problem,” said Makesh.

The approach is showing signs of success. Cognitive training has helped to increase the residents’ attention span from two minutes to as much as 28 minutes. Elopements have been minimized too, along with the use of medications.

Cohen wondered whether society will be willing to pay for the development of effective new drugs when the cost of care is rising so rapidly. “Politics and social awareness is where more thought has to be placed,” he said. What a promising coincidence that Gates announced his investment just six weeks later.

Even with the addition of $100 million to Alzheimer’s research, the demand for treatment and interventions will grow. Over the next five to 10 years, Makesh expects to see an increase in the need for Alzheimer’s care. “It’s not a pure real estate play,” he said. “You need a good care program.”

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