Down on the Farm: Alzheimer's disease
Medical progress is a double-edged sword. We spend more for health care each year simply because there are more things that can be fixed. And those new fixes aren't cheap.
New knees, new hips, new valves, new hearts, new kidneys. Amazing cancer treatments, roto-rooters for blocked veins, effective post-stroke treatments, miraculous results from physical therapy.
What about replacing the vertebrae in your neck? The lenses in your eyes? Who would have imagined such fixes only 20 years ago?
Old men no longer discuss cars at the cafe. They now satisfy their mechanical urges by describing their medical procedures.
The problem is we're going to get this fixed and get that fixed and get everything else fixed--until we finally get Alzheimer's disease, an uncurable and truly diabolical way to go.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, deaths from heart disease, strokes, prostate cancer and several other maladies have declined over the past decade.
Meanwhile, deaths from Alzheimer's disease rose 46 percent in six years.
Today, nearly 5.7 million people suffer from Alzheimer's disease in the United States. That's close to 2 percent of our population!
Not only do these statistics represent great suffering for those who have the disease, but think of the relatives and friends who must endure the bewildering and tragic transformation of the person they once thought they knew.
Then there is the matter of the caregivers. The Alzheimer's Association estimates that 11 million people take care of Alzheimer's patients without pay.
That's two caregivers for every person with the disease.
You can't really calculate the cost to those friends and relatives, people with a sense of duty and kindness who just plain wear themselves out trying to keep the patient in their home.
The statistics looking forward are pretty grim. Almost everybody is going to be touched by Alzheimer's at some time.
When I mull my future, I hope to be ornery and mean until my late 80s at which time I plan to keel over while mowing lawn, the victim of a quick and efficient heart attack.
But with advances in heart medicine, it looks as if the only way they'll let that happen is if I eat bacon every day for breakfast and never go to a doctor again.
None of my possible scenarios has me getting Alzheimer's. It's unthinkable.
But the chances of it eventually happening get greater as medical advances slowly eradicate other causes of death, even the best ones.
Medical research has gotten out of balance. The big money is in better hips, knees and heart valves. Private research dollars are going to head for the profits, and that is fine.
But public research funds should take into account the big picture. That big picture shows that unless we find a cure for Alzheimer's, we're just creating eventual misery for people by fixing their hearts.
Without a cure, in 30 years a big chunk of this country's population is going to either have Alzheimer's or be taking care of people with Alzheimer's, for pay or not.
What worries me is that in larger cities in states where good care for the elderly isn't the high priority it is here, the masses of Alzheimer's patients are going to suffer horrible abuse and neglect.
The wonderful compassion you see from the staffs in Alzheimer's units around here is an exhaustible resource. The deeper you dive into the labor pool to find caregivers, the more potential there is for mistreatment.
Alzheimer's patients, even those in the early stages, are in no position to defend themselves. If something bad happens, nobody will believe them anyway.
Yes, we've made miraculous medical advances. But our advances, unless wisely apportioned, may in the long run only increase the sum total of human suffering.