WASHINGTON — Sargent Shriver once walked the halls of Congress pressing senators and members of the House of Representatives for more money for the Peace Corps, Head Start and Job Corps, his daughter, Maria Shriver, testified Wednesday.
"He knew every senator and every congressman by name. He knew their careers, their interests, their politics and, of course, their soft spots," California's first lady said. Now, at 93, the one-time adviser to two presidents doesn't remember his daughter, thanks to the ravages of Alzheimer's, the disease that's left him entirely dependent on others.
It was for her dad and millions like him that Shriver testified Wednesday, pushing for increased attention to Alzheimer's in the wake of a new report that suggests the disease "could very easily surpass even the current economic crisis in the damage it inflicts on individuals and our economy."
The report by the Alzheimer's Study Group projects that Alzheimer's-related costs to Medicare and Medicaid alone will top more than $1 trillion annually by 2050.
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"We have to put Alzheimer's on the front burner, because if we don't, Alzheimer's will not only devour our memories, it will cripple our families, devastate our health-care system and decimate the legacy of our generation," Shriver told the Senate's Special Committee on Aging.
Her words on her father's behalf earned her a standing ovation from the dozens of Alzheimer's advocates who'd packed the ornate Senate hearing room, many of them wiping away tears as she spoke.
The study group — convened by Congress in 2007 and chaired by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Nebraska Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey — recommends creating what it called an Alzheimer's Solutions Project to accelerate and focus national efforts, including an emphasis on research into preventing Alzheimer's. Research funding for the disease has been flat for five years.
"The human pain and financial burden of Alzheimer's is so great and the potential breakthroughs in science are so encouraging that a 'Manhattan Project' . . . approach to ending Alzheimer's is more than justified," Gingrich said, referring to the government project to develop a nuclear weapon during World War II. He noted that polio infected more than 50,000 Americans in the 1950s, but the disease largely was eradicated when a vaccine was found.
"An Alzheimer's preventive would dramatically overshadow even that great scientific victory," Gingrich said.
Pitching for more money in a tight economy may be tricky, but Gingrich suggested that research should be based on potential savings.
"The choice for our generation is not whether or not to spend the money on Alzheimer's," Gingrich said. "The choice for our generation is to invest the money early and save a lot of lives, pain and money later or to be foolishly cheap."
Kerrey noted that many researchers think that they may be close to developing the ability to delay or event prevent Alzheimer's.
New cases of the disease — which the report notes strikes almost half of those who are older than 85 — are projected to increase by more than 50 percent in 20 years and then double to as many as 16 million cases by 2050.
"We just can't face that kind of personal tragedy and the cost," said retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a member of the study group who has personal experience with Alzheimer's: Her husband, John, has the disease.
O'Connor called for a major prevention initiative and more help for families, noting that many patients require two or more people providing around-the-clock care.
"The disease is devastating not only for those who are afflicted, but also their friends, family and colleagues," O'Connor said.
The study group also is calling for changes to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, noting that the system discourages the use of counseling and community services, which Kerrey said could be of great value to dementia patients.
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