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MAYBE ALZHEIMER'S FUNDING WILL RISE AS POPULATION AGES

As the country's median age increases, our population will become more than ever at risk for Alzheimer's disease, named for Alois Alzheimer, the German neuropathologist who first diagnosed it in 1906.

Federal financing of Alzheimer's research totals about $280 million a year. A lot of money but a pittance compared to the money we spend looking for cures for cancer, heart disease or AIDS.Alzheimer's disease stands apart from those other ailments in at least one important respect: Victims of heart disease, cancer or AIDS have ways to reduce the risk of getting those diseases; Alzheimer's victims do not.

Why the disparity in research money? Theories abound. One of them is that Alzheimer's disease afflicts mostly old people. Well, more and more of our population is defined as old, and the nation is increasingly in peril.

The U.S. Census Bureau says the number of people age 65 or older with Alzheimer's totaled 2.9 million in 1980; that figure soared to 4 million in 1990. By the year 2050, the government estimates that the number of elderly Alzheimer's patients will reach 7.5 million to 14 million, depending on the rate of population growth.

The death rate will increase, too. The Centers for Disease Control says annual deaths attributable to Alzheimer's increased from 0.4 per 100,000 in 1979 to 4.2 per 100,000 in 1987.

Multiply the number of victims by the number of spouses, children and siblings who must care for them and you get an idea of the disease's toll.

Alzheimer's victims usually suffer from disrupted sleep patterns. They get up in the middle of the night. And when they lose sleep, well, everyone in the house loses sleep right along with them.

They are disoriented. They become highly emotional, often shrieking in terror.

Alzheimer's patients wander incessantly, creating anxiety for caregivers every time he or she strays out of a room.

Living in a state of constant tension is no treat. It weighs heavily on family members' own relationships.

Alzheimer's took away the characteristics that gave my mother her individuality. Before she became ill, she had a dry wit that lurked not far below her shy exterior. She had acquired superb secretarial skills.

Our situation wasn't unique. Mine was a family just like other families. Our numbers are growing as we experience the loss of our mothers and fathers.

If government research money can pay for more scientists to probe the mysteries of this disease, to discover its causes and develop preventative measures, surely most Americans would be willing to contribute to it.