A version of this story first appeared in D.C. Diagnosis, STAT’s weekly newsletter about the politics and policy of health and medicine. Sign up here to receive it in your inbox.
The Iowa State Fair is a rite of passage for presidential candidates — they eat weird fried food, kiss babies, and answer question after question about their vision for America. But this year the candidates got a different sort of question, over and over again: What’s your plan for fighting Alzheimer’s?
Volunteers with the Alzheimer’s Impact Movement, the advocacy arm of the Alzheimer’s Association, swarmed the state fair this weekend and posed that question to nearly every Democratic presidential candidate at the fair.
This isn’t the first time AIM and its purple-shirt-sporting volunteers have interrogated presidential candidates: The barnstorm is part of a larger plan to make ending Alzheimer’s a 2020 campaign issue. AIM’s volunteers already stormed events in South Carolina and New Hampshire, too.
“We knew that we had to elevate the conversation, and we had to do it fast,” John Funderburk, AIM’s senior advocacy director told STAT when asked why AIM embarked on this campaign. “The crisis demands it.”
There’s a long tradition of presidential candidates promising to cure serious diseases. President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, have both made lofty pledges to cure cancer. And this isn’t the first time Alzheimer’s has become a campaign issue: Hillary Clinton, for example, released a sweeping Alzheimer’s plan in 2015.
But a candidate’s stance on any disease — whether it be cancer, Alzheimer’s or heart disease — isn’t going to win him or her the election, according to Bob Blendon, a Harvard University professor and an expert on health care politics. While voters care about disease — and Alzheimer’s consistently ranks among the most important diseases to voters — the issue alone is unlikely to swing voters, he said.
“Diseases are not top voting issues, and there’s nothing that they can do to suddenly make it a top voting issue,” he said.
Nonetheless, Blendon maintains that it’s still a good strategy for groups like AIM that hope to push Washington to do more on their diseases.
“It absolutely is a perfect strategy for the group,” Blendon said.
And AIM’s advocacy seems to be working: Democratic hopefuls are already talking about Alzheimer’s on the 2020 campaign trail, and for advocacy groups, that’s more than half the battle.
“If you can get people to talk about your issue in the election, it increases the likelihood that if they are elected there will be some major action taken,” Blendon said.
A few candidates, too, have already unveiled plans that tackle Alzheimer’s.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has publicly talked about her father’s experience with dementia, has been among the most forward leaning. She unveiled a plan in July centered on the “goal of putting us on a path toward developing a cure and treatment by 2025.”
Klobuchar’s plan would expand the Alzheimer’s-related services Medicare pays for, increase support for those who care for someone with Alzheimer’s, and expand services meant to locate missing persons with Alzheimer’s.
The Minnesota senator has also promised to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research. Her campaign platform doesn’t specify a funding target, but she has supported doubling NIH’s Alzheimer’s research budget during her time in the Senate.
Beto O’Rourke, too, has campaigned on increasing federal funding for Alzheimer’s research. He has called for doubling the total research dollars available to roughly $5 billion.
For leading Alzheimer’s researchers like Harvard’s Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, that’s good news.
“We really need the funding to get the new ideas in place to overcome all these failed trials and start testing new ideas,” Tanzi told STAT. He maintains Alzheimer’s needs federal funding on par with other pressing diseases like cancer and AIDS, and he pegs the sweet spot for federal funding at $6 billion dollars.
Tanzi, who advised Hillary Clinton on her 2016 Alzheimer’s plan but has not worked on any plan this election cycle, maintains that “it would be a mistake for presidential candidates to not include Alzheimer’s as part of their agenda.”
It’s a slippery slope, however: Candidates’ lofty promises to cure some of science’s most vexing ailments have sometimes prompted eye rolls from the nation’s top researchers. Others worry the public pledges could even create false hope for families aching for a cure.
Tanzi hopes the debate will be more nuanced than that.
“They at least have to say [that] how we prevent this disease in the future — nipping it in the bud — is going to be very different from how we treat it in patients who are already suffering, and I plan to address both of those challenges,” Tanzi maintained. “To simply to go up there and naively say we are going to cure the disease without getting into those details, may be a mistake in terms of overpromising.”
Whether that makes for a good sound bite, however, remains to be seen.