The Alzheimer’s Epidemic: Does the Right Have Anything to Say? Part 1 of 3
We have an epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease—epidemic, that’s the only word for it.
And there’s a humanitarian and political opportunity here, but only if someone seizes it. Here at Breitbart News, we might ask: Can conservatives and libertarians come up with a theory of governance that allows for creative problem-solving and that includes action to thwart this epidemic?
According to the medical journal Neurology, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is six times more prevalent than we had previously thought. The resulting headlines are blunt: “Alzheimer’s as deadly as heart disease and cancer.” In the words of AD activist George Vradenburg, “Alzheimer's disease is a cancer-size problem. Without a new sense of urgency on the part of Congress, we will soon see Alzheimer’s deaths rise to a million or more every year.”
This rise in AD will come at a huge cost. We already spend more than $200 billion a year treating the ravages of AD, and if present trends continue, with no cure or effective treatment, that sum is headed, by mid-century, to more than $1 trillion a year; the total cost of AD by then will be north of $20 trillion. That sum is so huge that it will make a mockery of anyone’s healthcare cost-containment plan—left, right, or center.
To put the matter plainly, if tens of millions of Americans develop AD-related dementia—a condition requiring 24/7 care that can last for years—then we face a catastrophic fiscal and ethical crisis in the decades ahead. And if the desire to alleviate human suffering isn’t a strong enough incentive, the desire to save money ought to spur us to action.
The only solution is a vaccine, or a cure, or at least some sort of effective treatment. Such a medical breakthrough, we might further note, would enable us to contemplate raising the retirement age. So Americans, if they chose to do so, would be able to keep their mental faculties and work longer. And oh, by the way, if we could manufacture an AD drug here in the US, we’d have a lucrative new export item, because as populous countries such as China and India enrich themselves, they, too, are developing the same disease patterns as the US.
We don’t know if an AD drug is scientifically possible, of course, but we should know that it’s a goal worth striving for.
Indeed, America’s capacity to do something, if it so wishes, has never been better. How so? Two reasons: capital and computers.
First, we might note, in 2013, the household net worth of Americans exceeded $80 trillion for the first time ever. That’s a lot of capital and purchasing power, to be sure, although if there’s no cure for AD, we can assume that much of it will be spent, in the decades ahead, on ultimately futile dementia care.
Second, we have unprecedented computational power, allowing us to “data crunch” our way to better medicine. We are all familiar with the fantastic power of Moore’s Law, but that might just be the beginning. A recent report suggest that the next-gen quantum computer could be 3600 times more powerful than even a supercomputer.
Such mind-bending capacities, both financial and technical, are a reminder that in spite of our current state of misgovernment, we have enormous private resources to devote to any problem.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the power of the FDA, the trial lawyers, and Naderite “privacy” regulations are stifling the pharmaceutical industry. In other words, red tape and litigation are contracting an industry that should be expanding.
Curiously, the political class in DC doesn’t seem much interested in reversing this ratcheting down of the “supply side” of the pharma industry. And that holds true for AD research, as well.
One way to measure this disinterest is to take a look at Politico, the daily diary of the Beltway. A current search for the word “Alzheimer’s” on the site yields no mentions from a politician for more than a week; in other words, the new data showing AD ballooning at epidemic proportions made no impression on Powertown.
Lack of interest from liberals might be explicable, because, after all, the Democrats have made health insurance, as opposed to health itself, their big cause. In addition, Democrats might think that they can afford to be intellectually complacent; after all, they control the White House. Moreover, the 2016 polls show that Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton leads all her possible Republican challengers by landslide margins.
Yet for their part, Republicans are in the opposite situation: They have lost four of the last six presidential elections; indeed, by the popular vote, they have lost five of the last six. Surveying this electoral damage, activists and thinkers on the right might be thinking harder about finding ways to show that they have relevant ideas—ideas that would persuade swing voters to take another look at the GOP. Improving the medical health of Americans could indeed be one such way to break through to alienated swing voters.
We might pause to note that when we speak of health, we are talking about just that—health. As in, that which is threatened by AD. We are not talking about Obamacare here; there’s a big difference between healthcare finance and medical science. That is, we can draw a bright-line distinction between creating bureaucracies to mandate and manage people’s health insurance policies—and creating systems that improve actual health.
Indeed, if we were to zero in on the issue of health itself, as opposed to health insurance, we could rely on knowhow and expertise that’s spread across the country, far from Washington DC.
Moreover, we can point to past successes that remind us that progress is possible. For example, the death rate from heart disease has fallen drastically, and so has the death rate from cancer, for both men and women. The effort, dominated by the private sector, has scored signal successes, even as Washington was paying relatively little attention.
Yet as we have seen, the accumulation of regulation and litigation—combined, of course, with the profound disinterest of the political class—is now so burdensome that we find ourselves without any treatment for AD. As a nation, we have been focusing on the wrong problem. It’s better medicine that will make America healthier, not another layer of health insurance.
This mis-focusing has been a huge loss for the nation, and it has also been a huge missed opportunity for the Republican Party. The CPAC convention, for example, meeting just outside of Washington DC, is supposed to highlight the conservative/libertarian vision of governance, and yet if any of the speakers other than Newt Gingrich has even so much as mentioned AD, it hasn’t gotten any coverage or buzz.
Some might argue that the idea of addressing a public health issue is simply not part of the conservative/libertarian political makeup. If so, that would be news to libertarian icon James Madison, the author of America’s Constitution. Madison believed in small government, to be sure, but he was not an anarchist; as he wrote in Federalist #51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Yet since humans are not angels, they indeed need some sort of system to protect them from transcendent dangers; as president, Madison signed the Vaccine Act of 1813, seeking to improve the quality of the smallpox vaccine.
Perhaps the most useful statement on the role of government comes from Abraham Lincoln, who in 1854 offered a useful way of thinking about what government should, and should not, do:
The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.
Clearly, epidemics fall into the category of things that citizens cannot do for themselves in their private lives. And in fact, the US Sanitary Commission, established by Lincoln during the Civil War, proved to have a major salutary impact not only on military health, but also on public health overall; many basic ideas of hygiene spread from the war’s Northern armies to all of the nation’s cities. And that was good for all Americans.
Like Madison before him, Lincoln was a principled pragmatist. In a public health emergency, as we are seeing now with AD, action is needed. It needn’t be bureaucratic action, but it has to be some sort of action. That’s a medical imperative, and, for Republicans, it’s also a political imperative.