The com­ing de­men­tia epi­demic

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Maria Shriver

Men­tion the words “women’s health,” and Alzheimer’s disease may not im­me­di­ately come to mind. It should.

The great­est emerg­ing risk to women’s health can be summed up in this stark statis­tic: Ev­ery 65 sec­onds in the United States a new brain de­vel­ops Alzheimer’s. Two-thirds of them be­long to women, and no one knows why that is.

For a woman over 60, the risk of de­vel­op­ing Alzheimer’s at some point in her life­time is twice as great as that of de­vel­op­ing breast can­cer. Peo­ple of color are also at a greater risk for the disease, with African Americans twice as likely and Lati­nos 1.5 times as likely to de­velop the disease as whites.

In Cal­i­for­nia, we have more peo­ple liv­ing with Alzheimer’s than in any other state. We also have the high­est num­ber of fam­ily care­givers.

We talk a lot about pre­par­ing for the next huge earth­quake, but Alzheimer’s is an­other “Big One” fac­ing Cal­i­for­nia, and we aren’t suf­fi­ciently pre­pared.

In his 2019-2020 budget, Gov. Gavin New­som has al­lo­cated $3 mil­lion to sup­port re­search that will help us bet­ter un­der­stand the greater preva­lence of Alzheimer’s among women and peo­ple of color. He is also es­tab­lish­ing a task force on Alzheimer’s preven­tion and pre­pared­ness, which will re­port to him how Cal­i­for­nia can ready it­self for the in­crease in cases and what govern­ment can do to help fam­i­lies fac­ing this in­sid­i­ous disease. These are ex­cel­lent steps, but more is needed.

Pro­jec­tions from the state De­part­ment of Fi­nance es­ti­mate that by 2060 more than 1 in 4 Cal­i­for­ni­ans will be 65 or older — nearly dou­ble the per­cent­age of res­i­dents in that age co­hort to­day. And ac­cord­ing to a poll con­ducted by the Women’s Alzheimer’s Move­ment and Gen­worth, the ma­jor­ity of Americans say they aren’t pre­pared fi­nan­cially for ag­ing or care­giv­ing and they want the govern­ment to step up and help.

While the chal­lenges pre­sented by this de­mo­graphic shift are many, ar­guably none is more se­vere than the im­pli­ca­tions for a spike in the num­ber of Cal­i­for­ni­ans stricken with Alzheimer’s. About 1 in 10 Americans over age 65 and about 1 in 3 over age 85 are liv­ing with the disease. In Cal­i­for­nia, the num­ber of peo­ple with Alzheimer’s is pro­jected to soar by nearly a third in just the next six years.

Alzheimer’s is a non­par­ti­san is­sue, which should make it easy for the Leg­is­la­ture to em­brace New­som’s pro­posal to strengthen Cal­i­for­nia’s prepa­ra­tion for the de­mo­graphic chal­lenges ahead. I’ve tes­ti­fied twice be­fore Congress for in­creased na­tional fund­ing. Now I want to see my home state step up on this is­sue and lead the coun­try for­ward.

Cal­i­for­nia is home to 10 Alzheimer’s Disease Cen­ters, the most in any state. It has a univer­sity sys­tem that is sec­ond to none. And now, we also have a bold new gov­er­nor who watched his fa­ther grap­ple with de­men­tia in his fi­nal months. Dur­ing his ten­ure as San Fran­cisco mayor, New­som con­trib­uted to the “2010 Shriver Re­port: A Woman’s Na­tion Takes on Alzheimer’s,” which re­ported for the first time that women are at an in­creased risk for the disease.

I am ex­cited for Cal­i­for­nia to lead the way on this is­sue. I’m ex­cited that so many peo­ple want to come to­gether and fig­ure out why women and peo­ple of color are at higher risk. I’m ex­cited that smart in­di­vid­u­als want to put their heads to­gether and fig­ure out how to pre­pare our state for this disease and how to bet­ter care for our ag­ing pop­u­la­tion.

In do­ing so, Cal­i­for­nia can help chart a course for the na­tion, as it has al­ready done on so many other is­sues.

Maria Shriver is an NBC jour­nal­ist and author who founded the Women’s Alzheimer’s Move­ment. She served as first lady of Cal­i­for­nia from 2003 to 2011.

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