Click to view a recording of  The AtlanticLIVE forum on Alzheimer's, "The Cost of Caring." Photo by The AtlanticLIVE

Click to view a recording of The AtlanticLIVE forum on Alzheimer’s, “The Cost of Caring.” Photo by The AtlanticLIVE

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and one of the top-10 leading causes of death that cannot be cured, slowed or prevented, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

So how should public health professionals be talking about it?

The Atlantic and the Alzheimer’s Association explored the question in a July forum, which convened thought leaders to discuss funding and political support for research, and the experience of caregivers in treating the disease. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s.

The multiple risks that can lead to Alzheimer’s make researching the disease difficult, according to National Institute of Aging Health Science Administration Laurie Ryan. Age, family history, education, diet and environment could all be risk factors in Alzheimer’s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dwayne Hughes, a caregiver to a family member with Alzheimer’s, added that balancing his life with giving an appropriate level of care is challenging, but government services and support groups helped.

“It’s important to understand that we have to learn as we go along,” said Richard Mohs, vice president for Neuroscience Clinical Development at Eli Lilly. “If it doesn’t work, then that closes our avenue off and we focus our efforts on something else.”

This year, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia will cost the United States an estimated $226 billion in health care expenditures, a number that could rise to $1.1 trillion by 2050.

U.S.  Senators Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, both shared their beliefs that Alzheimer’s is a nonpartisan issue. Durbin introduced the American Cures Act in 2014, which would increase funding for biomedical research at government agencies, including the National Institute of Health and CDC, at a “real growth rate” of 5 percent per year. The bill has not passed.

Public health also has a role to play, according to Daniela Freedman, chair of the APHA Aging and Public Health Section.

“At the annual meetings of APHA, Section members have presented research on aspects of Alzheimer’s disease such as the emotional, physical, and financial burden of the disease, caregivers’ needs and services, and the public’s perceptions and knowledge about risk and protective factors,” Freedman said. “In partnership with a number of other APHA sections, the Aging and Public Health Section is working on a dementia-related policy.”