WASHINGTON (AP) — Far more people than previously believed are providing billions of hours of unpaid care for Alzheimer’s patients, highlighting the growing impact of a graying population.

Nearly 15 million caregivers — most of them family members but also friends — provide care for people with dementia, says a report being released Tuesday by the Alzheimer’s Association.

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An estimated 5.4 million Americans have the mind-destroying disease. That it takes so many more people to care for them reflects the burden of an illness that not only robs its sufferers of the ability to do the simplest activities of daily life — but that patients can survive in that increasingly incapacitated state for years, even a decade or two.

“It’s too much of a job for any one person,” said Dr. William Thies of the Alzheimer’s Association. “Even Superman can’t do it.”

Those caregivers provide 17 billion hours of unpaid care, valued at more than $202 billion. Previously, experts had used a count about a decade ago to estimate that about 10 million caregivers provided 8.5 billion hours of unpaid care for Alzheimer’s patients.

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Moreover, the time and stress of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient takes a physical toll, translating into nearly $8 billion worth of extra health care costs for caregivers, the report says.

There is no known cure, and today’s treatments merely help symptoms for a while. While Alzheimer’s can strike the middle-aged, it mostly is a disease of older people and thus is expected to skyrocket as the population ages.

Despite all the behind-the-scenes unpaid care, health and nursing home expenditures for dementia patients will reach $183 billion this year, much of it paid by Medicare and Medicaid, the report says.


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Online: Alzheimer’s Association