A new state law aims to change the way Alzheimer’s Disease diagnoses and treatment are handled in Massachusetts in hopes of addressing what one advocate said is currently the “single largest unaddressed public health threat.”
The law, which Gov. Charlie Baker signed on Aug. 9 and marked with a ceremonial signing on Wednesday, requires the creation of an “integrated state plan to address and assist in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease,” establishes an advisory council on research and treatment, and calls upon doctors to report an initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis to a patient’s family.
More than 130,000 Massachusetts residents live with dementia, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who joined Baker and lawmakers for the ceremony at the Waltham offices of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“Despite its widespread impact, lack of information, fear, and stigma can prevent those affected from feeling safe, socially connected, and able to thrive in their communities,” Sudders said in a statement. “Often, family members carry the financial and emotional burden from caring for their loved ones. This legislation brings the diseases of Alzheimer’s and dementia to the forefront and will promote early detection and diagnosis, reduce risk, prevent avoidable hospitalizations, support caregivers and mitigate health disparities.”
Under the law, doctors will be required to report an initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment information to a family member or legal personal representative, after obtaining the patient’s consent and in keeping with privacy laws.
Hospitals will be required to implement operational plans for recognizing and managing dementia, and Alzheimer’s training will be incorporated into continuing education for doctors, physicians assistants, and nurses. Elder protective services caseworkers will also be trained in recognizing cognitive impairments.
“Alzheimer’s is the single largest unaddressed public health threat in the 21st century and we remain on the front lines of this crisis every day here in the commonwealth,” said Daniel Zotos, director of public policy and advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Massachusetts and New Hampshire chapter.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s dementia, 5.5 million of whom are 65 and older. By 2025, the number of people 65 and older with Alzheimer’s dementia is projected to climb almost 29 percent, to 7.1 million. Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and is becoming a more common cause of death as the country’s population ages.
The association pegs the total national cost of caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias at $277 billion, with total payments for health care, long-term care, and hospice care expected to rise to more than $1.1 trillion in 2050.
Supporters of the legislation hailed it as a nation-leading measure and said almost all families have a personal connection to Alzheimer’s.
Sen. Barbara L’Italien, whose mother died from Alzheimer’s in April 2017, said dealing with her mom’s diagnosis and care “taught me how difficult it can be for even the most informed families.” L’Italien, an Andover Democrat, said the law “will make a huge difference in the lives of the growing number of families struggling to understand and navigate life with dementia.”
Rep. Danielle Gregoire of Marlborough called the law’s signing “the final step in Massachusetts’s journey towards reversing the course of the public health crisis that is Alzheimer’s disease.”