Sen. Pat Toomey: Alzheimer’s research becomes personal issue

I met not long ago with dedicated scientists from the University of Pittsburgh who are pushing the frontiers of their field by developing state-of-the-art therapies for a truly tragic disease — Alzheimer’s.

The visit was personal. My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year. My grandmother died from the disease.

Like many Pennsylvanians, my family and I have seen firsthand just how devastating Alzheimer’s can be, not only for those suffering from it, but also for their families and caregivers.

As Americans live longer, we are seeing more and more cases of Alzheimer’s. While most people I meet are familiar with the illness, they might not know just how widespread it is in our state. Pennsylvania has the fifth-highest statewide total of people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Nationally, someone is diagnosed with it every 67 seconds, according to Kristen Bires, education and outreach manager for the Greater Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Research from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP estimates that Pennsylvania’s Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers provide 760 million hours of unpaid care valued at more than $9 billion. That’s a staggering figure, and a true testament to their compassion and determination.

Earlier this year in Pittsburgh, I sat down with some of those caregivers — spouses, sons and daughters of Alzheimer’s patients. They were people just like me and my wife, Kris. They were people who shared the worry about the deterioration of loved ones, seemingly worse with every visit. At first, you feel helpless. Then, you take action and find help and support.

Jeanne Youngquist, of Erie, recently lost her mother and father-in-law to Alzheimer’s. She said: “Help is available, but you have to dig for it. Taking care of your own life while managing care for a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s is extremely difficult.” She urged Erie residents to take advantage of resources and support available from the Alzheimer Association, the Greater Erie Community Action Committee and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, for example.

And while finding a cure for Alzheimer’s will be a serious challenge, I am proud to report that Pennsylvania is leading the charge. A “life sciences research arc” spans our commonwealth, anchored in the west at the University of Pittsburgh and in the east at the University of Pennsylvania. The Alzheimer’s research occurring in our own state holds so much promise for health and medicine, and it gives me and my family a lot of hope.

As a member of the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s, I am committed to finding the most responsible and effective way of ensuring that this work continues and succeeds. This year, I’ve signed on to bipartisan legislation that requires the director of the National Institutes of Health to annually submit his professional recommendation on the appropriate level of funding needed to meet the challenge of Alzheimer’s disease to both Congress and the president. It’s important that we determine how much funding is needed to cure this disease, and then we can reshape our budget priorities accordingly.

Alzheimer’s is a tragic illness that robs its victims of one of their life’s greatest possessions — their memories.

Working together, I am confident we can end it.

If someone in your family suffers from the disease, I encourage you to share your story. You will be amazed at the support you can provide to others who face the same difficult responsibility of caring for a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Or as Youngquist says: “Caregivers for family members suffering from Alzheimer’s need to realize they are not alone. There are many families and people in similar situations as them. Ask for help and use the resources that are available. I would encourage families to attend senior fairs and talk to people, because there are answers that work and solutions to help you and your loved one.”

Originally published by the Erie Times-News