How does one quantify the full cost of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias? The fact is, it can’t really be done.

Sure, it’s possible tally the hard costs, as the Alzheimer’s Association just did. Their educated guess is that the tab weighs in around $320 billion each year, and could surpass $1 trillion by 2050.

To be sure, those are staggering numbers. And yet they tell only part of the story. A more comprehensive assessment would need to consider costs that don’t neatly lend themselves to a spreadsheet. Things like:

  • The cost to each victim who can no longer recognize a spouse, children or old friends.
  • The fear of losing one’s mind.
  • The gut-wrenching experience of watching a loved one wither away.

And those are just for starters.

Small wonder that treatments with an iffy-at-best chance of success are being given the benefit of the doubt.

This is scary stuff. Yet in some ways, we’ve seen this rodeo before.

It’s easy to forget that until the 1950s, there was a great fear of polio across this country. And with good reason. Polio attacked its victims by causing muscle weakness and paralysis. Or at least id did, until an American physician named Jonas Salk developed an effective vaccine.

I think in some ways, dementia has become our new polio. Or at least the new polio, pre-polio vaccine.

By some estimates, more than 5 million people in the U.S. alone have some kind of dementia. Many of these unfortunate folks reside in your senior living communities. What is particularly insidious about this condition is that it robs people of who they are. And like all fatal conditions, it goes from bad to worse.

But if we now have five million sufferers, how many millions more live in fear that they too might be “chosen”? My guess is that it’s a fairly large percentage of this nation’s adult population.

Sadly, the race to find a treatment for dementia is progressing at a relative snail’s pace. At least when compared with the breakneck effort that was put into treating COVID-19.

Part of the sluggishness regarding dementia treatments is due to economics. Many drug companies have spent a fortune on possible cures, only to roll snake eyes during clinical trials. Lose a billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon the shareholders tend to get a bit testy. So there’s that.

Part of the problem is the tricky nature of causation. Even among the most educated scholars in this field, there is considerable debate about dementia’s actual cause, or causes.

And part of the problem, frankly, is a general acceptance of dementia as a normal risk of aging.

So where do we go from here?

The Alzheimer’s Association is right to insist on a greater fiscal commitment toward research. After all, who knows how close the next Dr. Salk might be?

But I think something else is also required: an attitudinal change.

We need to get away from the idea that dementia is an inevitable or at least likely part of the aging process. Our new view needs to be that dementia is simply not acceptable.

Until that happens, there is only one guarantee: The cost of dementia will continue to rise.