Picture: Ground zero for Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's has chipped away at the memory and finances of Orlando's Fred Odena, a 72-year-old former engineer and Marine. Experts estimate that as baby boomers age, the number of Alzheimer's patients in Florida will balloon, giving the state the second-largest population of Alzheimer's patients in the country. (George Skene/Orlando Sentinel / August 1, 2011)

As baby boomers head for retirement, population experts have warned Americans to brace for what they call a "silver tsunami." But that tsunami could pose a special danger to Florida — because of Alzheimer's disease.

Today, an estimated 500,000 Floridians have Alzheimer's disease, but that number is expected to grow 40 percent by 2025, according to a recent report from the Alzheimer's Association, a national nonprofit agency dedicated to research on the disease.

That would give Florida more Alzheimer's patients than all but one other state — California. And it will make Florida ground zero for the coming Alzheimer's wave.

The reasons are simple, say advocates for the elderly.

"We have more old people [than other states] and old people are living longer. The No. 1 risk factor for Alzheimer's is age," said Mary Ellen Grant, director of Share the Care, an Orlando day-care facility that provides respite care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients.

At age 65, one in 10 people has Alzheimer's. But by age 85, almost half of Americans have the disease.

Nationally, there are about 5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer's today, and experts predict that number will triple by 2050. The cost of their care to Medicare and Medicaid was about $170 billion last year. By 2050, experts estimate their care will surpass the nation's military budget and cost $800 billion a year.

Beyond the cost to taxpayers, Alzheimer's disease is devastating to families, said David Morgan, CEO and director of the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute at the University of Southern Florida. Businesses lose money to Alzheimer's, too, he said, because employees who try to juggle caregiving with work often miss time and sometimes have to leave the workforce.

The financial cost of Alzheimer's disease to business is estimated at more than $61 billion a year. Of that, $24.6 billion is directly related to health care, while $36.5 billion covers lost productivity for employees who are caregivers, according to data from the Alzheimer's Association.

"It's a complex problem, and one that's really going to hit Florida hard," said USF's Morgan. "But the worst part is what it does to the families. You have to constantly be vigilant that they're not going to get themselves in trouble.

"It's like raising a child," Morgan said. "But it gets worse instead of better."

That's what has happened to Fred Odena of Orlando. At first, he would become disoriented from time to time. Then he began stopping at green lights while he was driving.

His wife of 52 years knew something was very wrong when he went on a business trip and police found him lost and wandering the streets — minus $500 in cash.

Two years ago the former rocket scientist for Lockheed Martin was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

"It's just sad," said Sue Odena. "It's just a shame that he's being robbed of himself."

Today the 72-year-old former Marine and part-time calculus teacher sometimes sneeds help putting his pants on correctly.

"He knows where this is going and he feels very badly that we're being put through it," Odena said. "I go out in the garage and cry because I don't want him to feel bad."

Is Florida ready?

Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. But in a survey released earlier this year, Americans said they fear being diagnosed with Alzheimer's almost as much as they fear a cancer diagnosis.

The reason? Alzheimer's can be a long, taxing journey for both patients and their families.