We’re living longer. The number of U.S. adults 65 and older — roughly 40 million as of the 2010 census — is expected to nearly double to 71 million by 2030 and to reach 98 million by 2060. In much of the rest of the world, the story is the same. But if the aging trend illustrates the success of public health strategies, it also raises the specter of a major public health crisis — a sharp rise in the number of people living with Alzheimer’s disease.
Ron Brookmeyer, a professor in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics, has called attention to the looming Alzheimer’s epidemic through widely cited studies in which he has employed sophisticated computer models to project the number of cases, as well as the potential positive impact of future therapies and other strategies to prevent or delay the onset and progression of symptoms.
Brookmeyer’s work in this arena began nearly 20 years ago with a paper he wrote in the American Journal of Public Health projecting that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States would nearly quadruple by the middle of this century, by which time approximately 1 in 45 Americans will be afflicted. His 2007 study also projected that 1 in 85 persons worldwide will be living with the disease by 2050, with nearly half of them requiring a level of care equivalent to that of a nursing home.
Brookmeyer’s development of statistical models to make forecasts on epidemics began in the late 1980s with HIV/AIDS, but after becoming involved in a study on aging, he turned his attention to the threat posed by Alzheimer’s disease. “Obviously it’s not a transmissible epidemic like the ones I had been looking at, but with the aging of the population, it was clear that the numbers were going to explode,” he explains.
As part of his modeling, Brookmeyer and his colleagues consider both demographic trends and the severity of the progression of the disease. “This is a long illness,” he says. “Once you’re diagnosed, you might live with it for 10 or more years, and the intensity of the care required will vary during that time. From a public health point of view, it’s very important to look at where people will be in different stages of the disease and the needs we will be facing as a society.”
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