Expanding impact, stagnant funding

Published February 27, 2007

Alzheimer's disease costs Medicare and Medicaid billions of dollars a year, not to mention the financial and emotional burden it imposes on individual families.

And that's before baby boomers triple the caseload.

This year's budget from the Bush administration calls for $643-million in federal spending for Alzheimer's research, the same amount spent in 2006 but down slightly from previous years.

People with a personal stake are aghast.

"I get so furious to see that we are actually cutting funding," says Terri McNulty, a vice president at Bright House Networks, whose 58-year-old sister is already deep into Alzheimer's.

"It isn't a designer disease. It isn't a star disease. We put people away and don't talk about it. But it will destroy the public health system in 10 years if we don't have a breakthrough."

Steve Younkin, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, says that relatively low funding levels are driving promising young scientists away from Alzheimer's work, even though researchers are homing in on possible causes and cures.

The federal government now funds only about 10 percent of grant applications, compared with about 25 percent a few years ago, Younkin says.

"We are paying Halliburton (for multiple contracts in Iraq), but not Alzheimer's (research). What are our priorities?"

Here are a few of those priorities, according to a sampling of the budget:

- HIV/AIDS research gets four times more federal money than does Alzheimer's.

- Breast cancer gets a little more, as do eye diseases and vision disorders.

- Infant mortality and low birth-weight programs receive a little less, as do dental and oral diseases.