Cancer and heart disease are bigger killers, but Alzheimer's is the most expensive malady in the U.S., costing families and society $157 billion to $215 billion a year, according to a new study that looked at this in unprecedented detail.
The biggest cost of Alzheimer's and other types of dementia isn't drugs or other medical treatments, but the care that's needed just to get mentally impaired people through daily life, the nonprofit RAND Corp.'s study found.
It also gives what experts say is the most reliable estimate for how many Americans have dementia — around 4.1 million. That's less than the widely cited 5.2 million estimate from the Alzheimer's Association, which comes from a study that included people with less severe impairment.
"The bottom line here is the same: Dementia is among the most costly diseases to society, and we need to address this if we're going to come to terms with the cost to the Medicare and Medicaid system," said Matthew Baumgart, senior director of public policy at the Alzheimer's Association.
Dementia's direct costs, from medicines to nursing homes, are $109 billion a year in 2010 dollars, the new RAND report found. That compares to $102 billion for heart disease and $77 billion for cancer. Informal care by family members and others pushes dementia's total even higher, depending on how that care and lost wages are valued.
"The informal care costs are substantially higher for dementia than for cancer or heart conditions," said Michael Hurd, a RAND economist who led the study. It was sponsored by the government's National Institute on Aging and will be published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.