Guest Commentary

Daisy Duarte: Alzheimer’s stole my mom’s memories and mine are next

Daisy Duarte (left) and her mother, Sonia Cardona.
Daisy Duarte (left) and her mother, Sonia Cardona.

Last year, I tested positive for the early-onset familial Alzheimer’s gene that my mother and so many others in my family have. I sat quietly as a genetic counselor explained that the results meant that I would get Alzheimer’s disease by my 65th birthday.

Like many in the Latino community, I didn’t know much about Alzheimer’s before my mother was diagnosed with the progressive brain disease two years ago at the age of 57. Now I live with the knowledge that my memories have a limited shelf life, set to expire in 25 years.

I’ve decided to use this time to fight for a cure as an advocate, a caregiver and as one of the few Latina participants in an Alzheimer’s clinical trial at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Five million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease, a number that is expected to triple by 2050. My mother is one of the 100,000 Missourians living with the disease. And the number of Latinos is expected grow 600 percent to 1.5 million by 2050. But these numbers don’t adequately capture the disease’s impact on my family, the Latino community or the nation.

Financially, it’s devastating. The direct and indirect cost of Alzheimer’s disease is more than $225 billion annually. If we continue on our current course, the total cost of the disease is likely to exceed $1 trillion by 2050 — more than cancer and heart disease.

Personally, I was forced to close a successful business to provide the fulltime care my mom needs. Now any money I make as an hourly worker, along with her meager pension, go to Alzheimer’s related costs. It’s certainly not something we planned for financially or emotionally.

I know that significant federal research investments in HIV, stroke and heart disease have saved lives and reduced overall health care costs. But a similar investment has not been made in Alzheimer’s and we’re paying for it in the lives of our loved ones. This fact is made clear in published studies from the National Center for Health Statistics, which reports that from 2000 to 2013, deaths attributed to HIV declined by 52 percent, stroke by 23 percent and heart disease by 14 percent, while deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease increased by 71 percent.

More than 1.8 million Latino family members care for an individual living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. The majority are daughters like me, providing high-stress, around-the-clock care for loved ones who often don’t remember who we are and too often cannot dress, feed or bathe themselves. It’s a tough job that we take on with love, a sense of duty and honor, but it’s a job that we need help with. We need a cure.

Thanks in large measure to the leadership of Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Senate recommended that federal funding for Alzheimer’s research be increased by $350 million in fiscal 2016. Legislation in the House recommends $300 million.

At a time of partisan battles over many issues, I’m pleased there is bipartisan support for significantly increasing Alzheimer’s research funding. As Congress juggles a range of priorities in the current funding debate, it is critical that lawmakers support making Alzheimer’s funding a national priority. It’s a smart and necessary investment in the future of our economy, our health care system and the well-being of millions of families. Memories are too important to have a shelf life.

Daisy Duarte, a patient and caregiver advocate with the Latinos Against Alzheimer’s Network, lives in Springfield, Mo. Her family’s story appeared this year in People magazine.