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Dementia More Costly Than Cancer, Will Become More Common

Image: Pixabay, Gerd Altmann via Creative Commons
Gerd Altmann via Creative Commons

Researchers determined dementia leads to total annual societal costs of more than $40,000 per case in the U.S.

The most comprehensive study on the costs of dementia shows the disease is more expensive than heart disease and cancer, costing society and families around $200 billion a year.

The costs of dementia-related care and the number of people suffering from the disease will more than double by 2040, according to research supported by the RAND Corporation, financed by the government and published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Key findings

Researchers determined dementia leads to total annual societal costs of $41,000 to $56,000 per case in the U.S., totaling up to $215 billion in 2010. More troubling were calculations that estimate the aging population will lead to an increase of almost 80 percent in total costs by 2040.

Most dementia-related costs stem from long-term institutional and home-based care, not medical care. Nursing home, formal and informal care account for up to 80 percent of the costs. These estimates place dementia among the most costly diseases.  In 2010, almost 15 percent of Americans 70 and older suffered dementia.

By 2040, nine million people will have the disease. “I don’t know of any other disease predicting such a huge increase,” Dr. Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, told The New York Times. “As we have the baby boomer group maturing, there are going to be more older people with fewer children to be informal caregivers for them, which is going to intensify the problem even more.”

Still, the findings are more conservative than previous calculations from the Alzheimer’s Association, which estimated that in 2010 the monetary costs alone were $170 billion, as compared to $110 billion.

Figuring costs of dementia

It is notoriously difficult to glean accurate data about the costs of dementia over time, which makes the new findings especially important to the medical community and financial institutions.

Dementia is a chronic disease associated with aging and is characterized by progressive cognitive decline, mostly affecting seniors already suffering from other ailments. This makes its financial implications difficult to separate.

Secondly, most of those suffering from dementia are looked after by caregivers, many unpaid, making it difficult to estimate monetary costs for caregivers’ time.

The researchers began with some 11,000 people from a long-running government health survey called the Health and Retirement Study, which began in 1992. They surveyed more than 800 of the people aged 51 years or older. To get a strong representation of dementia, those respondents underwent a three-hour in-home clinical assessment. Those results were then reflected upon the larger group.

Researchers then analyzed Medicare records and patients’ out-of-pocket expenses. Foregone wages from family caregivers who gave up work to care were tabulated, as were estimates of what the care may have cost if bought from formal providers. Spending on all other ailments, such as diabetes and high blood pressure was subtracted.

Dr. Kenneth Langa, a University of Michigan researcher who helped with the research, told ABC News, “This is an important difference” from other studies that did not determine how much health care cost was attributable to just dementia.

President Barack Obama signed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act into law in January 2011; it aims to track costs of dementia and improve the health outcomes of those living with the disease.