A mother runs from her children, not recognizing them, and falls to her death from the second floor of their home. A family learns their father is being kicked out of a care facility because the facility can’t handle him or his uncontrollable outbursts. Siblings think their mother is hallucinating when she is experiencing vision distortions.
These are cruel experiences suffered everyday by families in America. Mind-stealing and sight-robbing diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma are ravaging our loved ones and pose a real threat to the financial and societal well-being of our nation.
At a time when we need to accelerate investment and empower the biomedical researchers who seek to find cures for these diseases, we face another threat: talented scientists are choosing other fields because of the scarcity of funding and concern about a sustainable career. This “brain drain” is jeopardizing the next generation of scientists and the pipeline of progress that’s bringing us closer to successful prevention, diagnosis and treatment strategies.
After a decade of declining budgets for brain and eye disease research, younger scientists — who are so critical to early-stage research discoveries — are now seeking other, more reliable career paths. And because of financial constraints, highly educated and extensively trained researchers are unable to maintain their labs, cutting off a generation of up-and-coming scientists at the source.
The current lack of funding is a concern among researchers. And the issue is now compounded by the number of people soon to be affected by brain and eye diseases.
Consider some of the facts.
- Our population is aging. Starting in January 2011, baby boomers began turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 people per day.
- Total U.S. health care expenditure for Alzheimer’s disease is $200 billion annually and growing rapidly.
- The number of people living with all forms of macular degeneration equals the number of people who have all types of cancer, even those in remission.
- More than 3 million Americans are living with glaucoma, and it is likely that only half the people with glaucoma actually are aware they have the disease.
We know that finding answers to these dreaded diseases will actually lower costs by trillions of dollars and improve lives of Americans. But first, there must be a national investment in research, principally at the National Institutes of Health, but also through institutions like the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the CEO of BrightFocus Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds and advances brain and eye disease research, I share the concern of our research grantees about the slow pace of discovery and the impact that these incurable diseases have on us personally and as a society. These diseases know no boundaries and threaten all of us equally. Resources are needed now to preserve the momentum achieved against diseases of mind and sight and to inspire the next generation of great thinkers to bring our society closer to cures.
Stacy Haller is president and chief executive officer of BrightFocus Foundation, formerly named American Health Assistance Foundation. BrightFocus supports research and provides public education to help eradicate brain and eye diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma.