Alzheimer’s disease is “the most under-recognized public health crisis of the 21st century,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Only 45 percent of people with Alzheimer’s are told about their diagnosis by a healthcare provider, compared to more than 90 percent of people with the four most common types of cancer. And of the top 10 causes of death in the USA, Alzheimer’s is the only one that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed.
What is a public health crisis? The World Health Organization (WHO) uses the term “crisis” for a “situation that is perceived as difficult.” A crisis may at times elude public knowledge, contain different levels and layers of intensity, and have the potential to reach levels beyond what is predicted. For example, specific events such as the 2014 Ebola virus epidemic and 2001 anthrax attacks are characterized as public health crises. Issues like addiction and obesity often have the same distinction.
Alzheimer’s fits the definition of a public health crisis. People who have the disease are impacted, along with their loved ones and the entire healthcare system. In the coming years, the number of Alzheimer’s diagnoses and deaths is expected to increase. The financial toll of the disease on families and the economy is also expected to rise, worsening an already difficult situation.
What Is Being Done?
The CDC’s BRFSS Survey
The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), collects data at the state and local level to target and build health promotion activities. Because the data tracks the impact of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, it can be a strong tool for informing the community about these trends and how to respond. The survey can also help policymakers with decisions involving Alzheimer’s.
Initiatives Promoting Cognitive Health
Enhanced cognitive activity — along with good physical health, exercise, nutrition and social engagement — can potentially reduce the risk of cognitive decline and possibly prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The following initiatives represent some of the ways that federal agencies are addressing the crisis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Healthy Brain Initiative
The CDC and the Alzheimer’s Association organized the Healthy Brain Initiative, which seeks to better understand cognitive impairment. The initiative targets interventions to improve cognitive health and implementation of positive actions into public health practice.
According to the Public Health Road Map Report for 2013-2018, the initiative focuses on ensuring that people with dementia are aware of their diagnosis as well as reducing preventable hospitalizations among patients with dementia. Other action items are divided into four domains: monitor and evaluate public health data; educate and empower the nation about causes of disease, injury and disability; develop policy and mobilize partnerships on cognitive health; and assure a competent public health workforce.
Healthy People 2020
The Healthy People program establishes national health-related goals set by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The most recent 10-year agenda for public health topics and objectives listed dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, as a new topic area for the program.
The primary goal in Healthy People 2020 is reducing morbidity and costs related to dementia as well as maintaining or enhancing the quality of life for those with dementia. Other areas where progress is important include early diagnosis, interventions to delay and prevent onset of disease, better ways to manage Alzheimer’s when other chronic conditions are present, and understanding lifestyle factors that influence risk.
The Role of Education
Education is critical for the public health crisis of Alzheimer’s disease. This can lead to greater public understanding of the disease, resulting in more support for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. Enhanced public education can also create additional momentum for research on Alzheimer’s. Hence, public health professionals who are trained to help with Alzheimer’s can make a difference, from investigating the disease to providing resources in their community.
The rest of the article, including the state of Alzheimer’s disease, is available on Rivier University Online.
Brian Neese has been writing about online education for more than five years, with specialties in health care, business and education. In his spare time, he enjoys sports, movies and spending time with family and friends.