The health debate in the United States is missing a critical element when it comes to controlling costs. A subtle but important shift in emphasis could make all the difference.

The notion that long-term health system affordability will be achieved by re-engineering subsidies, tax credits and delivery systems is certainly important. But the conversations about health savings should include the importance of achieving cures of high-cost, high-prevalence diseases — a goal that would have a demonstrably positive financial impact in the United States. In the area of cures, leaders in the United States must focus on the largest, game-changing threat to public health and economics that is speeding towards them — Alzheimer’s disease.

Startling data

“The scope and scale of our efforts to combat Alzheimer’s must match the scope and scale of the challenge it poses.”

Recent data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Alzheimer’s deaths have increased by 55 percent during a 15-year period from 1999 to 2014, and this impact is actually vastly underreported. An independent study found that deaths are often attributed to other causes like pneumonia, sepsis or infections, when they are, in actuality, due to the insidious and gradual effects of Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

Furthermore, there are currently 5.5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s, and this number is expected to triple in the coming decades. The disease currently costs the nation more than $250 billion annually.  Simply — and frighteningly — dementia is rapidly becoming the most significant health threat facing the nation. It has the potential to render financially unsustainable the essential social support programs that ensure access to medical care for many older or low-income people in the United States.

The importance of research

Luckily, many leaders in government, research and industry are working earnestly to pave new paths towards treatments. This commitment to collaboration, idea sharing and investment in high-impact therapies is threatened by recent administration proposals that undermine research – chief among them potential cuts in biomedical research funding in fiscal year 2018 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s largest biomedical research funder.

Recent victories against other destructive diseases have proven that research and investment are the keys to scientific problem solving and to cost reduction. Heart disease rates are on the decline. HIV has been transformed from a death sentence to a manageable disease. Certain cancers have significantly lower mortality rates than they did just a few years ago, and the oncology drug pipeline is bursting with new therapies that are poised to see greater success in the next few years. Costs for caring for those diseases are down due to biomedical innovation.

An upsetting trend

Alzheimer’s trends, however, are going in the opposite direction. For years, Alzheimer’s research has received a small fraction of the resources being devoted to other fields of medical research and, not surprisingly, progress has lagged. As a result, a novel Alzheimer’s therapy hasn’t reached the market since 2003.

The scope and scale of our efforts to combat Alzheimer’s must match the scope and scale of the challenge it poses. To win, we need a cancer-sized solution for this cancer-sized problem. To that end, I applaud recent bipartisan action in Congress to increase fiscal year 2017 Alzheimer’s funding at NIH to approximately $1.4 billion; However, this number still falls far below the level that researchers say is needed to stop Alzheimer’s by the national goal of 2025.

Health care debates are sure to endure as a normal part of the political discourse. But the fact remains that it will be cheaper to find a cure for this horrible disease than it will be to keep treating the increasing millions of people who are experiencing it.

Ultimately, cures are cheaper than care.