There may still be unenlightened places where polite people avoid conversation about Alzheimer’s disease, the scourge that robs older people of cognitive function and, ultimately, their lives. But the Lagoon Theater in the Uptown area of Minneapolis on Tuesday night was not one of them. A large auditorium was almost filled with people who came at the invitation of AARP to see the movie “Still Alice” and discuss how to respond to Alzheimer’s increasing toll.
In one way, they had already responded, via their elected officials. The 2015 Legislature took the rare step of earmarking $1 million in each of the next two years for “prevention, treatment, causes and cures of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.” Those funds will flow to a joint venture of the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic. In addition, the Legislature provided $1.6 million over two years for grants to promote greater public awareness, earlier diagnosis and community support for those who care for victims of dementia.
Those are modest sums by state budget standards, but they make a significant statement. It is not typical for the Legislature to single out a particular malady for state funds. But dementia is not a typical threat — it’s a looming public health epidemic.
Minnesotans are noted for their longevity, with an average life expectancy of 81.1 years, second only to Hawaii among U.S. states. And the state is home to a baby boomer cohort so large that its over-65 population is expected to double by 2030. Those demographic realities make Minnesotans particularly vulnerable to a costly, debilitating disease that afflicts one of every nine Americans older than 65 and one of three older than 85.
Medical research is the only hope for changing that trajectory, said state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, a champion for Alzheimer’s funding. Until effective treatments are found, efforts to erase stigma and create “dementia-friendly communities” are in order. Act on Alzheimer’s is a vigorous new group worth watching.
Nelson knows too well the toll the disease takes. She came to the Lagoon Theater on Tuesday from the birthday party for her 84-year-old father, an Alzheimer’s sufferer who did not appear to understand why people were singing to him that day. The 2015 Legislature left more than $850 million to be allocated next year, Nelson noted, and she intends to seek an additional portion for Alzheimer’s research. We’ll be cheering her on.