Legislators look at plan to fight Alzheimer’s

Nancy Humberstone fought an eight-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease before passing away last year.

She was just 65 years old when she died.

Humberstone, of Gainesville, was an Emory University professor of physical therapy. But the disease, as it slowly took its toll on her brain, made her unable to figure out how to check her cellphone messages, said her daughter Sheila, who became her mother’s caregiver.

“It was extraordinarily difficult,’’ Sheila Humberstone said. “By the end, I was showering her, changing her diapers.’’

Humberstone was among people testifying Tuesday before a Senate committee considering legislation to create a task force for developing a state response plan on Alzheimer’s disease.

Georgia is one of a few states that have not formed such a plan to deal with the costly disease, which is the most common cause of dementia.

An estimated 120,000 Georgians have Alzheimer’s, and the number is expected to keep going up. Georgia has among the highest mortality rates from the condition.

Nationally, nearly one of every two people over age 85 has Alzheimer’s, researchers say. Among selected causes of death, Alzheimer’s saw a 66 percent increase between 2000 and 2008.

Spending on Alzheimer’s care has soared, now reaching $200 billion a year.

The bill would form a task force to assess the current and future impact of Alzheimer’s in Georgia. It would be charged with developing state plan that could seek to identify effective treatment of Alzheimer’s; improve quality of care; expand supports for patients and their families; enhance public awareness; develop better data; and boost research.

Senate Bill 14, with Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford) as lead sponsor, passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously Tuesday.

The condition, because it is so disabling and gets progressively worse, puts an enormous long-term burden on caregivers. About 75 percent of Alzheimer’s patients end up in a nursing home by age 80. And among patients in nursing homes with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, 51 percent have their care paid for by the government Medicaid program.

Alzheimer’s is not a disease that hits only the very old, as Nancy Humberstone’s case demonstrated.

Pam Greene of Douglasville testified before the Senate panel about her husband, Prestal, who died last year at age 59 from the disease.

The medical fight against Alzheimer’s still has a “long way to go’’ testified Dr. Allan Levey, chairman of the department of neurology at Emory. “We don’t have a cure. We have pretty mediocre treatments.’’

But early diagnosis can help save money, reducing institutionalization. Levey, director of the Emory Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, estimated that implementing a program for early diagnosis and treatment in Georgia could translate to cost savings of at least $1.25 billion.

“Now it’s time to have a state plan,’’ Levey said.

Currently, the job of everyday care for Alzheimer’s patients falls mostly to their families, Kathryn Fowler of the Georgia Council on Aging told GHN after the hearing.

Having a state plan could help make funding to fight the disease ‘‘part of the norm,’’ added Kathy Simpson of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Under the bill, the task force would consist of government officials and state lawmakers, with health care officials serving as advisory members.

It would have the task of producing a state response plan on Alzheimer’s by March 31, 2014.