Dementia Treatment


According to current estimates, more than five million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. Under the current trajectory, more than 13.8 million additional baby boomers are expected to develop dementia by 2050. Despite considerable effort by researchers, there are currently no drugs or medical procedures for preventing or curing dementia. 

A 2015 AARP policy survey revealed that virtually all members recognize dementia as a serious problem. The survey also reported that 85 percent have known someone with dementia, yet misconceptions abound. Older adults want to know about their mental functioning. Health care providers are the first line of defense for individuals who notice a decline in cognitive health. But few health care providers discuss dementia with their patients or assess mental functioning during the Medicare Annual Wellness Visit. Nearly half of members mistakenly believe that dementia is a mental illness, and 41 percent think dementia is part of the normal process of aging. 

The human, societal, and financial costs of dementia are all very high. They include health care costs, negative impacts on individuals and their families and friends, and adverse effects on the workforce. It is estimated that the average per-person Medicare spending for people age 65 and older with dementia is three times higher than for seniors without dementia. Medicaid payments are 19 times higher. Researchers project that the cost of caring for those with Alzheimer’s will make up 24.2 percent of Medicare’s spending by 2040. Dementia impacts not only the patient but also their family and friends. In 2015, the direct annual cost of caring for those with dementia was estimated at $226 billion. It is expected to reach over $1.1 trillion a year by 2050. People caring for family or friends with dementia had $9.7 billion in additional health care costs of their own due to the physical and emotional toll of caregiving. 

People with dementia make up substantial proportions of all older individuals served in medical, residential, and home and community settings. On average, about one-quarter of all older hospital patients are people with dementia. Almost 65 percent of nursing home residents have moderate to severe cognitive impairment. Most people prefer to receive services in their homes or the community whenever possible. However, many communities are not equipped to meet the needs of individuals with dementia and the families who provide the care. This has enormous implications on quality of life, both for individuals living with dementia and for their families. 

Of additional concern are the racial and ethnic disparities that exist in dementia diagnosis and care. For instance, Black Americans and Hispanic/Latino communities have substantially higher incidence rates of dementia than whites. As the nation ages and more racially and ethnically diverse generations reach older adulthood, racial and ethnic diversity among people with dementia will increase. The need to develop person- and family-centered care to accommodate such diversity will grow. This is important because certain racial and ethnic groups use care differently. They face different risks of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, have different chances of receiving a diagnosis, and experience different attitudes and levels of support from caregivers. 



Quality of care

Policymakers should expand and bring to scale demonstrations that are cost-effective, person-centered, and proven to improve quality of life for individuals across all stages of the diseases that cause dementia. The goal of these demonstrations is to delay the progression of dementia and increase independence through person-centered care while lowering overall health care costs. Dementia “centers for excellence,” which educate, conduct research, and expedite the adoption of cost-effective best practices, should be established and replicated. 

Training and education

Private industries, including banks and financial institutions, the aging network, and all health care and legal professionals, as well as law enforcement and first responders, should have appropriate training in identifying and providing adequate support for individuals with cognitive impairment. Medicare and Medicaid should ensure adequate training and support are provided to formal and family caregivers providing care to someone with dementia. In addition, the federal government should ensure that dementia-specific training of direct-care workers and facility administrators is included as a quality measure for nursing homes and home health services in Medicare Compare. 

Public awareness

Federal and state governments should provide sufficient funding for long-term public education programs. The messaging should be multilingual and multicultural and aimed at raising public awareness of dementia, reducing stigma, encouraging detection of cognitive impairment, and promoting brain health. 

Screening, diagnosis, and education in clinical care

Health care professionals who provide an initial diagnosis of dementia or cognitive impairment should explain to individuals—and their families, as appropriate—the differences between the types and stages of impairment and the types of care available. Screenings to detect cognitive impairment should be made more generally available and standardized for those who wish to take them as part of the Medicare Annual Wellness Visit. The federal government should collect data on how many providers are performing detection of cognitive impairment during the Medicare Annual Wellness Visit, what detection tools they may be using, and how many patients are being referred for further assessment.

Emphasis on nonpharmacological treatments

When possible and appropriate, care should be provided through behavioral modification and environmental interventions rather than pharmacological treatments. However, such treatments may not be effective for some people (see also this chapter’s section on Medical Research as well as Long-Term Services and Supports section on nursing home use of physical and chemical restraints). 

Focus on disparities

Policymakers should identify and provide adequate and targeted resources to eliminate disparities in the prevention and incidence of cognitive impairment and the quality of dementia care across all populations. 

Multisector approaches

State and local governments should develop task forces where broad segments of local communities partner with local health care facilities to find common ground on care. They should seek ways to improve care and reduce costs to individuals and institutions that care for patients with dementia. 

Advance care planning

Health care providers should strongly encourage advance care planning by all older patients, particularly those diagnosed with cognitive impairment. Advance care planning will ensure that family members know patients’ wishes. It should include discussions about powers of attorney for health care and handling finances, wishes regarding treatment to be recorded in living wills, and preferred care settings. 

Use of community-based services

Policymakers should ensure that people with cognitive impairment or dementia who need long-term services and supports receive them in homes and community settings, including adult day service sites, for as long as possible. This includes support for their family caregivers.


Private industry, in partnership with the public sector, should develop innovative technology solutions that support family caregivers and enhance the independence, safety, and daily living of the person with dementia. 

Banking and financial services

Banking and financial services should support the identification of those who have dementia and aid these individuals and their caregivers in conducting banking and financial planning services.