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It is time we change our thinking on Alzheimer’s disease. Too often Alzheimer’s is treated as an aging issue but, similar to other diseases, Alzheimer’s has a broad impact on communities. It is more than just a health problem. Because the burden is large, the impact is major. Alzheimer’s is a public health crisis.

Today, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. In Montana alone, there are 20,000 people living with Alzheimer’s and thousands of others caring for them each day. The most expensive disease in the country, in 2017 the cost of caring for people with Alzheimer’s will be $259 billion, and the costs are expected to rise. By 2050, direct annual costs are expected to rise to $1.1 trillion.

The impact of Alzheimer’s disease is undeniable. Medicare and Medicaid bear two-thirds of the health and long-term care costs of those living with Alzheimer’s. In 2017 alone, Medicare and Medicaid will spend $175 billion caring for individuals living with Alzheimer’s, with Montana’s share of the Medicaid cost reaching $139 million.

I served as a caregiver for my wife of nearly 50 years after she developed early onset dementia in her late fifties. Since then, I have been active with the Alzheimer's Association, my local agency on aging, as well as numerous speaking engagements involving dementia. Presently, I work with a local group in Missoula attempting to create a dementia-friendly community. The cost of this problem is huge and we need to find new ways to deal with it.

Now, Congress has a chance to take decisive action by passing the Building Our Largest Dementia (BOLD) Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act (S. 2076/H.R. 4256). Endorsed by the Alzheimer’s Association and the Alzheimer’s Impact Movement, the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act would address Alzheimer’s as a public health issue.

Public health works on a population level to protect and improve the health and safety of an entire community or group of people. By working with diverse communities, public health expands the reach and impact of health care efforts. Passing the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act would multiply our efforts to care for those living with the disease, improve care quality, provide enhanced support for caregivers and allow us to better understand the disease.

Specifically, the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act would establish Alzheimer’s Centers of Excellence around the country to expand and promote innovative and effective Alzheimer’s interventions. It would also provide funding to state, local and tribal public health departments to implement the Public Health Road Map and to promote cognitive health, risk reduction, early detection and diagnosis, and the needs of caregivers. Public health officials can use the traditional tools and techniques of public health to improve the quality of life for those living with Alzheimer’s and to reduce the costs associated with it.

The BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act would also increase collection, analysis and timely reporting of data on cognitive decline and caregiving. This data is critical to identifying opportunities for public health interventions, helping stakeholders track progress in the public health response, and enabling state and federal policymakers to make informed decisions when developing plans and policies.

This bipartisan bill is already receiving support in Congress. Today, 11 senators and 57 representatives have signed on to support this legislation. Please join me in asking U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester and U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte to support the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act today.

Former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher once said, “Alzheimer’s is the most under-recognized threat to public health in the 21st century.” It is time that we recognize this public health threat and pass the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act.

Dick Blank is a retired medical doctor and a member of the Missoula Coalition on Aging and Disability.

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