As for who paid, Medicare foot the bill for $11 billion out of the up to $215 billion in total expenses, Hurd's team said.
It's a small share because Medicare does not usually cover nursing home or other long-term care. Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor, will cover it -- but only after certain patient assets have been spent down.
"A large part of the burden is borne by families," said Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the U.S. National Institute on Aging, which funded the study.
Hodes noted that things could get tougher in the years to come. The younger baby boomers had fewer children compared with past generations -- so along with the rise in the number of elderly adults with dementia, there will be fewer family members to care for them.
Study author Hurd said the findings highlight two big needs: some sort of health insurance program to cover long-term care and more research into ways to slow the progression of dementia or delay its onset.
"If we could delay the onset of dementia, the payoff would be high," Hurd said.
NIA director Hodes agreed. "We don't have an effective treatment or an effective way to prevent dementia," he said. "And the results from studies so far have been disappointing, to say the least."
But there are clinical trials under way, looking at both drugs and other approaches -- such as exercise -- to forestall dementia.
"There is reason for hope and optimism," Hodes said.
Hurd said dementia may already be having a bigger financial impact than heart disease and cancer -- which cost the nation $102 billion and $77 billion, respectively, in 2010.
Those estimates do not include the costs of family caregiving, Hurd said. "But it's likely they would be lower compared with dementia," he added.
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