Last week, thousands of advocates descended on Washington, D.C. They are the brothers, the sisters, the friends, and the children of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. One advocate, Ann Tillery, found herself in the new Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the president himself was dining. After a few quick words and a photo-op, Mr. Trump acknowledged how difficult Alzheimer’s will be to solve, saying it is “a horrible disease.”
If Trump really believes this, his proposed budget hardly indicates as such. Trump’s plan, which represents his vision for how the U.S. government should spend its resources, would cut the National Institutes of Health by $5.8 billion — roughly 18 percent of its entire budget. For the NIH, which funds the vast majority of basic science on diseases like Alzheimer’s, this would be the biggest budget cut in history.
The deftest mental gymnastics cannot provide a justification for these cuts. More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, or about one out of every 10 people above 65 years old. The caregivers for these patients are usually their immediate family members, and about one out of every three says their own health has worsened due to the stress of caring for a person with dementia. On top of that, health care costs for Alzheimer’s in the U.S. total more than $250 billion.
This won’t get better by sweeping it under the rug. The population is aging. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s will continue to rise. Some estimates suggest that as many as 16 million will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by 2050.
Without funding the science to understand Alzheimer’s, or the therapeutic drugs that might prevent it, these numbers may be borne out. Patients and families will be the ones who suffer.
This is why budget cuts leveled at biomedical research, including research on Alzheimer’s, are shortsighted. What Trump fails to realize — or perhaps simply ignores — is that investments in biomedical research are just that: investments. They won’t pay off next week. They won’t give him a bump in polling popularity. But what they will do, eventually, is save actual human beings from suffering. If that's not worth government dollars, what is?
Of course, presidential budget proposals never represent the final budget; Congress weighs in with a red pen before the money goes out. Yet the budget document is an important representation of the president’s vision. If funding for biomedical science is not paramount in that vision, Trump’s claim that Alzheimer’s is a “horrible disease” seems to be little more than his usual placating.
Politicians tend to think in terms of the next election cycle. It’s myopic, it’s imprudent, but unfortunately, it is the norm inside the D.C. beltway. Instead, as elected leaders sworn to serve, they should be thinking in the decades it may take to solve debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Trump says he want to improve the lives of the American people. He should lay out his budget as if he means it.
Andrew Merluzzi is a Ph.D./MPA candidate in neuroscience and public policy at UW-Madison.
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